Needing only one point to take home an improbable worst-to-first Eastern Conference title run, D.C. United did what they have been doing all season long – producing wins – this one of course being the most important as the Black-and-Red defeated the Chicago Fire 2-1 tonight at chilly RFK Stadium.
One season after producing the single-worst record in MLS history, United turned the tables completely around and now will be the top seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs begin the weekend of November 1st. In a season that will not be forgotten anytime soon, this time for all the right reasons, perhaps United’s most impressive feat was to set the league-record with a turnaround of 42 points from last season to this year (United had 16 points all of 2013 and currently stand at 58 points with one match remaining). In addition to the amazing turnaround, United also has qualified for the 2015-2016 CONCACAF Champions League group stages which begin late next summer. United has already advanced to the knockout stage of the 2014-2015 competition which will begin in February of next year.
Chris Pontius’ first goal of the season and Eddie Johnson’s game-winner in the second half powered United to a frantic victory over the Fire. Chicago, long out of the playoff chase, fell behind by two goals but had the intestinal fortitude to not give up and gave United quite a battle and when Harrison Shipp scored between Bill Hamid’s legs in the 67th minute to make things interesting.
Hamid was called on to make another couple of saves and even got some good fortune when a redirected shot from Shipp bounced off the goalpost and into the grateful arms of Hamid just a few minutes after the visitors had cut the deficit in half.
United, as they have done most of the season, withstood the challenge and now have won the Eastern Conference title for the first time since the 2007 season.
From the jump both teams played a bit cautious and the match began to beg for a singular moment to jump start the action. That moment came in the 28th minute when Quincy Amerikwa beat United’s defense to the end line and rolled a pass to the penalty spot where former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle was waiting at the penalty spot. His one-time shot was somehow saved by a Hamid leg kick, a type of save that is now becoming routine in Hamid’s play.
That save sparked the match to life and United took the lead just three minutes later. Nick DeLeon took down a ball in midfield and played Eddie Johnson on his overlapping run down the right sideline. The much-maligned striker didn’t hesitate and hit a one-time curling cross that found Pontius on the back post in stride and the UCSB product placed his header perfectly between goalkeeper Kyle Reynish and the near post for his first league goal since September of last year.
After the break United would double their lead thanks to lapse in concentration from the Fire defense. Patrick Ianni’s attempted back pass in the 57th minuted caught the back heel of fellow midfielder Chris Ritter and the deflected ball fell right into the path of Johnson. Johnson, starting for United’s injured leading scorer Luis Silva, pounced on the mistake and only had defender Jeff Larentowicz between him and the goal. Johnson’s pace was no match for Larentowicz as he pushed the ball to his right and slipped a shot easily past Reynish for the 2-0 lead.
United now turn their attention towards their final CONCACAF Champions League Group 4 match when they travel to Panama to take on Tauro FC on Tuesday night. With qualification already assured, head coach Ben Olsen already has stated that he plans to take his reserves on the road to give a rest to his starters ahead of their final league match next Saturday in Montreal.
United still has an outside chance of taking over MLS #2 seed overall heading into the playoffs. United will need both a victory in Montreal coupled with either Los Angeles or Seattle sweeping their two-game head-to-head series that begins tomorrow night in Los Angeles. Additionally, if the Galaxy and Seattle draw tomorrow and Seattle wins their return leg, United will tie the Galaxy on 61 points (provided they win in Montreal) but win the first MLS tie-breaker in total wins. Los Angeles and United are currently tied with 17 wins apiece.
Gaining the #2 overall seed is important because whichever of the two teams in the West loses in the playoffs and United makes it to MLS Cup, then MLS Cup will be right here at RFK Stadium on November 7th.