For the first time in a while, there is a legitimate buzz around D.C. sports. The Capitals are coming off a Stanley Cup championship and the Redskins occupy the top spot of the NFC East behind a resurgent running game and a dominant defense. Now, the attention in the city has shifted to D.C. United. Once considered an afterthought languishing at the bottom of the MLS, United have risen from the ashes to clinch a playoff berth with one game remaining. Their ascent is nothing short of spectacular, but can they ride this momentum all the way to the MLS Cup?
DCU stumbled out of the gate, starting the year 2-7-5 for a woeful 11 points through 14 games. Their poor start had them stuck at the bottom of the Eastern Conference for 15 consecutive weeks, but upon examining their schedule, it makes sense why DCU performed so poorly. Only two of the first 14 games were at home, and it’s a stretch to even call them home games. Their first “home” game resulted in a draw against Houston Dynamo, but the game was played at the Maryland SoccerPlex, a tiny 4,000 seat stadium located an hour northwest of downtown DC. The second “home” game resulted in a 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Though the seating capacity there is larger, only 12,396 fans turned up to the game, as the stadium is an hour away from downtown.
DCU sorely missed some key players in the early part of the season. They were without midfielder Russell Canouse, who provided defensive stability at the position, as he missed 14 games recovering from a knee injury. Longtime goalkeeper Bill Hamid was lost to FC Midtjylland in Denmark, as he and DCU couldn’t come to an agreement on contract terms. The loss of these key players and the sheer volume of road games kept DCU at the bottom of the standings at the beginning of the year.
July 14, 2018, represented a day of hope for DCU. They were set to open Audi Field, the new soccer-specific stadium at Buzzard Point. Equally important was the acquisition of Wayne Rooney, one of the most celebrated British soccer players ever. Rooney was struggling at Everton, and he claimed that they couldn’t wait to get rid of him. I also had my own doubts concerning Rooney’s performance, as I believed he would simply add to the legacy of the MLS as a place for former European stars to waste away the remainder of their playing days.
Rooney proved me wrong from the very start. On July 14, DCU soundly defeated the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1, and Rooney’s impact was felt immediately. After being subbed on for striker Darren Mattocks in the 59th minute, Rooney notched an assist on Paul Arriola’s goal, and DCU fans felt a glimmer of hope. This hope turned into sheer ecstasy in a game against Orlando City SC, when a miracle finish boosted the enthusiasm of the DCU crowd. In the 96th minute of a 2-2 game, Rooney made a spectacular play, racing back on defense to make a critical tackle with DCU’s net empty. He then launched a perfect pass to Luciano Acosta, who headed it in the net for the win.
The Orlando City miracle occurred on August 12, and from then on, DCU have gone 9-2-1, and have won their last five in a row. This incredible run has included victories over Atlanta FC, the top team in the East, and FC Dallas, the top team in the West. Since Rooney arrived, he’s led the squad with 12 goals in 19 games.
Though it may seem like it, Rooney is not the only reason for the success that DCU have had. A multitude of factors contributed to their incredible run, but perhaps most important was the opening of Audi Field. In 15 games at the new stadium, DCU have gone 12-2-1, and the support of the home fans has spurred the team to greater success. Another important factor in their success is the return of keeper Bill Hamid. He struggled in his time in Denmark, only making one appearance. Thus, DCU picked him up on loan, and he joined the club on August 8. Hamid is usually good for a few world-class saves each game, and he’s brought stability over David Ousted on the back end.
The return of Russell Canouse from injury has also stabilized their midfield, and Canouse was the unlikely hero of a win over Dallas, scoring the game’s only goal.
However, the most striking difference in the team is the fervor with which Luciano Acosta is playing. Acosta and Rooney have been a formidable duo since Rooney’s arrival on the squad. A perfect example of their teamwork occurred in their last game against NYCFC. In the 8th minute, Acosta dribbled five defenders in the box and set up Rooney in the empty net. This marked Acosta’s 15th assist on the season, showcasing his creativity when he’s on form.
DCU clinched a playoff berth with their most recent victory and occupy the 5th spot in the Eastern Conference. If they can take care of business at the Chicago Fire on Sunday, they will advance to the 4th spot and earn the right to host a single-elimination playoff game. As the last few weeks have shown, DCU have been lethal at home, and the advantage would be enough to propel the team to victory. However, a loss could drop them back to the 6th spot, which would greatly hurt their chances at advancing.
While DCU have been an exciting team to watch, this situation can be a double-edged sword. Nobody is denying their explosiveness on offense, but the team often allows high-danger chances and relies on Hamid to make elite saves. They also tend to go through long spells where the opposition controls possession, and overreliance on the counterattack may hurt them against technically sound teams. If DCU can cover the holes defensively, they will be a fearsome team to face, no matter the venue.
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