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Strong second half against Crew puts D.C. United on cusp of playoffs

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After a sluggish opening 45, United responded in force in the 2nd half, scoring thrice against the Crew to put distance between themselves and the New England Revolution

The win for D.C. United on Saturday over Orlando City was crucial. United could have ill-afforded anything but three points against the Lions. After that win, Wednesday night’s game against Columbus Crew SC didn’t have quite the urgency, but United still needed a win to give themselves breathing room from their nearest playoff competitors. And after a sluggish first half, one that saw United on the back foot for 45 minutes, United got the victory they craved, putting the Crew to the sword in a 3-0 victory at RFK Stadium.

It was the first time in 2016 that United had strung back to back wins together, and it created a four point gap between the 7th placed New England Revolution for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With three games remaining in the season, United have a little wiggle room with Toronto FC, New York City FC, and Orlando City yet to play.

“The momentum is good right now. We had a good performance against Orlando. That was a good showing at home, and we just wanted to piggy back off of that and continue the form,” United keeper Bill Hamid said in the post game press conference. “You could see that our momentum carried through to the second half. We figured it out, and we punished them.”

The figuring out that United had to do was how to deal with a Columbus side that dictated the play in the first half. Columbus didn’t really challenge Hamid in the first half, but United were continuously pegged back, having to drop deep to defend their own goal. United finished the first half with just 32% possession, an indication this time of how little forward they got.

United did have the best chance of the first half though, but Patrick Mullins was unable to guide a header from Lloyd Sam’s pinpoint cross past keeper Steve Clark. It was one of those chances that early in the season might have cost United, who repeatedly were punished for not finishing off chances.

“I thought in the first half, we weren’t not real cohesive in the way we were pressing. When we did drop, we were very disciplined in the way we did it, and we kept them from having great opportunities,” manager Ben Olsen said after the game. “We had to be better with the ball, and resting with the ball. A lot of little plays weren’t sharp, and it added up to them on the front foot and us defending quite a bit.”

That changed to a degree in the second half, and just before he was taken off for Lamar Neagle, Sam popped up to score the game winning goal in the 71st minute. Taking down a pass from Luciano Acosta, Sam held off Michael Parkhurst in the box before firing home, and then immediately leaving the field for Neagle’s entrance.

“I had a feeling,” Sam said after the game, knowing that he was about to be subbed off. “I had been a bit sloppy with the ball for the 5 to 10 minutes before that. I thought I need to make something happen before I come off. I thought, [Acosta’s] got the ball, he’s a guy that can find me. Let me make a run, see if he finds me. The rest is history.”

“It was a great goal tonight. He put in a lot defensively, dealing with the overlaps, and when they had possession like that,” Olsen said of Sam. “Those guys are asked to do a lot of work, Patrick [Nyarko] and Lloyd [Sam]. And they did that, more than we wanted in the first half. In the second half, I’m glad he got a reward out of that.”

There was then still plenty to play for when Neagle entered the game. An equalizer from Columbus would have ruined a good night for United, but as the Crew wore down, Neagle took advantage. He was wide open in the middle of the field to collect a pass from fellow substitute Julian Buescher in the 86th minute, with all the time in the world to fire past Clark.

And then Neagle took advantage of a misplay by Columbus on Hamid’s long ball up the field in the 89th minute, breaking into the box to find substitute Alvaro Saborio, who made little fuss one timing home his fifth goal of the season. It was the icing on the cake for a team that has now scored multiple goals in 9 of their last 10 games.

“I’m just trying to do what I can. Tonight [Columbus] were a little bit tired, so when I came on, I had the advantage of being fresh. I’ve been in good form right now, and just try to take that in stride,” Neagle said post game. “I was really surprised about how wide open I was. Julian played me a ball, repaid me for last week. I got him one, so he got me one.”

Though United have the four point cushion now, there is still work to be done. The Montreal Impact is just a point ahead in 5th place, and the Philadelphia Union are two points ahead in 4th place. And there’s three teams just waiting for United to slip up in the final three games to grab that 6th and final playoff spot.

So with back to back wins in, United heads to Toronto, looking to continue their recent turn of form.

“We all knew the implications of the night. Winning 3-0 is great as well. [We’re] getting some momentum,” said Neagle. “Our first back to back wins, leading into the playoffs, that’s huge.”