D.C. United win the Eastern Conference in amazing turnaround season

Photo: Martin Fernandez, United Mania

WASHINGTON, October 18, 2014 — D.C. United stunk in league play last year, winning a miserly three games and 16 points. On Saturday night the club wrote itself into the Major League Soccer’s record books producing the biggest turnaround in MLS history. With a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire, United earned 58 points – a record 42 point difference on last year – with one game still on the calendar.

United also earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference and home advantage going into the playoffs. United got the victory before a sellout crowd of 20,162 fans at RFK Stadium who have witnessed a transformation of the team this season and have returned in droves to support the four-time champion.

The seeds of this year’s success began in the chaos of last season when midst its worst league run, United claimed the U.S. Open Cup. Trophies are hard to come by in soccer, but that piece of proud silverware probably saved coach Ben Olsen’s career. Immediately, the club began a rebuilding process with an eye on this season. Veteran MLS players, who had all been on winning teams, such as Bobby Boswell, Davy Arnaud, Jeff Parke, Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe, were all later recruited to join a budding youth movement at the club and the solid spine of goalie Bill Hamid, midfielder Perry Kitchen and the recovering Chris Pontius.

It all paid off. Ben Olsen, a gritty, hard-working, blue-collar player in his day, built a well-balanced club of many parts that worked well together. The team gradually gathered steam and confidence as the season progressed. The previous lean times created a sense of humility and cohesion at the club.

It was not all a bed of roses. United suffered some big setbacks this year, with injuries to Parke, Johnson, Rolfe, and recently its leading-scorer Luis Silva, but each time it seemed someone came off the bench and rose to the task, such as in the case of young defenders Taylor Kemp and Steve Birnbaum, who have retained starting roles due to excellent form. And with Johnson and Pontius both back from injuries and finding their form, United is in a an ideal position to go far in the playoffs.

Johnson in particular could be the ace in the hole if he can pick up his game in the upcoming playoffs and work in tandem with United’s key player of the year, Espindola. Johnson made a rare start in recent months, replacing the injured Silva (hamstring) against Chicago and displayed the kind of form that once made him a national team star. He set up Pontius’ goal with a delightful cross. Nick DeLeon fed Johnson a ball on the right flank and the striker make a gem cross towards Pontius at the far post on the six-yard line. Pontius headed the ball down past goalie Kyle Reynish for his first ever goal against Chicago and his first league goal for United this season.

Johnson had more magic left, and put the game away with a fine goal in the 53rd minute. Taking advantage of a terrible pass from Patrick Ianni, who sent an aimless ball back towards his goal, Johnson ran at full-tilt into the Fire box. He breezed by defender Jeff Larentowicz and unleashed a powerful shot past Reynish for his seventh goal of the season.

Chicago got back into the game in the 67th minute when Harry Shipp made a good run and connected with a fine pass from substitute Patrick Nyarko, and tucked a shot between Hamid’s legs.

United now has a five-game unbeaten streak and faces the bottom-of-the-table Montreal Impact on the road in its final game of the season on Saturday.

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