As the seconds in stoppage time ticked away, the stands shook at RFK Stadium like they had on the old days. As the chants from both sides of the pitch reverberated and DC tried to keep the ball away from an arsenal of Crew attackers, you could be forgiven for squinting a little and thinking it was the glory days of DC United, a scrappy team led by Ben Olsen that looked like it would make a run at adding silverware to the trophy cabinet. This time, however, Ben Olsen was in dress attire on the sidelines and the starting keeper was a high schooler the last time DC United was assured a home playoff game.
With their 3-2 victory on Saturday night, DC United clinched no worse than a fourth place finish and secured their first playoff appearance in five years. On the other side, the loss was equally devastating as the outright result eliminated the Crew from the playoffs completely; this is now the fourth straight year Robert Warzycha’s team will be watching the postseason from home.
This match was destined to be high scoring, but the late scratch of Chad Marshall from the lineup with an ankle injury sealed this prediction. It did not take long for Columbus to break open the scoring, as Eddie Gaven found a bouncing ball in the DC box and coolly slotted it home in the seventh minute. Despite enjoying more possession, it was not until the 39th minute that DC responded. A Lionard Pajoy shot was tipped away by a busy Andy Gruenebaum but found the foot of an open Nick DeLeon; the Louisville product equalized the DC record for goals by a rookie with his sixth on the year. Columbus again gained the upper hand before halftime as Jairo Arrieta created some space in the 41st minute and blasted a shot past/onto Hamid and into the net.
The second half had the same pace as the first; DC enjoying a little more possession but the game going end to end with both teams looking like they could score at any moment. The second half also belonged to DC’s defensive players, who again came through with their offence. The home side equalized in the 59th minute when Andy Najar’s free kick was controlled in the box just enough by a sliding Brandon McDonald to find Marcelo Saragosa. The holding midfielder and MLS veteran unleashed a bullet past Gruenebaum to equalize and push the tempo up even further. A draw secured a playoff spot for DC, so they had to play a delicate game of trying to find that third goal while holding off a desperate Columbus attack. It was not until second half stoppage time that DC had a golden opportunity on the break that saw Branko Boskovic slide the ball to a wide open Lewis Neal and, having easily run past the flailing and alone keeper, the final piece was a simple shot into the net.
The remarkable thing about this victory is that it extended the Black and Red’s unbeaten streak since losing Dwayne DeRosario to six matches. In addition, the team sits in second place in the Eastern Conference and DC finishes the regular season with only one loss at home. A team some had discounted for dead after losing their captain now suddenly looks like it has the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.
As for the visitors, it will be a long offseason of mixed emotions. Warzycha made some shrewd midseason moves to bring in the consistent attacking talent the team has long lacked (arguably Arrieta was the MVP of this game) but the Crew still missed the playoffs. Management will have to decide if they want to bring the veteran head coach back and if they can build around the pieces they currently have.
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