WASHINGTON — D.C. United and “must-win” have become synonymous through a long final stretch of the MLS regular season.
This week’s “must-win” game ended in a 1-0 victory over the Western Conference leader, FC Dallas Saturday at Audi Field. The win pushed United over the playoff line for the 2018 MLS playoffs in front of an announced 19,610 fans.
“No one wants to be near the middle-to-bottom of the league team and playing just for the fun of it,” captain Wayne Rooney said. “You want the big pressure moments. You want to feel that pressure. What we are doing, we feel that pressure and we are thriving on it.”
Persistence has paid off at Audi Field for United. They won the last three and are unbeaten in seven consecutive games — just one of those games was played away from home.
“The mentality of this group is pretty good,” coach Ben Olsen said. “I keep being on guard for competency, but they are a pretty determined group.”
Late in a scoreless draw Saturday, persistence paid off for defensive midfielder Russell Canouse.
With four minutes left in regulation, Rooney launched a long free kick into the penalty box. The set piece deflected to the right foot of Canouse, whose volley bounced off the crossbar to the foot of defender Steve Birnbaum. Canouse cleaned up the mess with a soft header past goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez to give the home team the win.
“Gutsy stuff from a good-old central Pennsylvania kid, who made a heck of a play on goal,” Olsen said. “I am glad he is rewarded for all the work he has done this year with a goal.”
In the midst of an international break, United once again had to rely on depth. Forward Darren Mattocks, Dane Kelly and midfielder Junior Moreno were with their national teams. United was also without versatile midfielder Paul Arriola, who returned to California Friday to be with family after his father’s death last week.
Eighteen-year-old homegrown Chris Durkin stepped into Moreno’s spot next to Canouse, while midfielder Zoltan Stieber manned the right flank. Defender Jalen Robinson started as right back in his fifth game of the season.
“Having a guy or two out, Durkin and Robinson filling in some roles, it wasn’t perfect in the first half,” Olsen said. “We made a few adjustments, more mentally than anything, a bit more aggressive … We started to trust each other with the ball on the ground.”
It was fitting that the lone goal came from Canouse, who is a close friend to Arriola. Canouse did not have the best first half, but stepped up when United needed it the most for the first of Canouse’s MLS career.
“It was a special a special moment for me. Obviously Paul wasn’t out on the field with me, with the team today. He is back at home with his family,” Canouse said. “That goal was for him.”
Oct 13, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; D.C. United defender Joseph Mora (28) passes the ball as FC Dallas midfielder Abel Aguilar (44) and FC Dallas midfielder Ryan Hollingshead (12) defend in the first half at Audi Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The defense was a crucial part of United’s win, keeping a clean sheet against an FC Dallas side that has scored 51 goals this season. United’s backline cleared away six shots inside the box from Dallas.
Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was also a large part of the clean sheet. He made a crucial save in the 76th minute when defender Reto Ziegler slotted a ball to forward Michael Barrios at the top of the box. The falling outstretched body of the 6-foot-3 Hamid deflected the ball with his finger tip.
“We dug deep,” Birnbaum said. “That was a big from the defense tonight. The back line and [Hamid] played great tonight.
United has clawed its way above Montreal Impact into sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a game still in hand, which comes Wednesday at 7:30 pm against Toronto FC at 7:30 p.m. at Audi Field.
“We just have to focus on the next game. I know it is cliche, but that is what we have been doing,” Olsen said. “I tell them not to look at the standings. We have a game this Wednesday against another good team.”