Despite losing in the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, D.C. United’s success at home this season shows that the team’s future is bright.
After putting together an impressive second-half campaign, D.C. United’s playoff run this season was cut short by the Columbus Crew last week.
The two teams faced off in the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they played through extra time and into a penalty shootout. While United had battled its way back from a 2-1 deficit in extra time, the team’s two biggest stars, Luciano Acosta and Wayne Rooney, had their penalty kicks saved by Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
Even after the Crew’s Gyasi Zardes and Patrick Mullins missed their penalty kicks, United could not take control. Defender Nick DeLeon struck his penalty kick way over the crossbar and United lost the game in the shootout.
While the defeat to the Crew will certainly sting for a while, United fans should be optimistic over the future of the club. Given the rough start to the season, things could have been much worse. By the end of the 2017 regular season, United was arguably the worst team in the league. The team finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with only 32 points and a -29 goal differential.
United also had major issues up top. The team’s leading scorers last season were midfielder Luciano Acosta and forward Patrick Mullins who both only scored five goals. It was a lackluster season that the club would hope to forget.
Then, in 2018, United looked to improve on its previous struggles, however, the team had very little to be happy about at the start of the campaign. Through the first 20 games of the season, United only had five total wins.
While the slow start could be attributed to the team’s extensive schedule on the road, it was also clear that it lacked an identity. United desperately needed someone who could inject new life into the team, as the shadow of failure from the previous season still loomed over the club.
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Due to multiple factors, things finally began to change for United in August. Perhaps the biggest influence in this change was the opening of Audi Field, the team’s new home stadium.
For years, D.C. United played at RFK Stadium, the former home of the Washington Redskins, even though the venue was far from great. Over the years as the team struggled to reach the playoffs, the decrepit stadium continued to fall apart. As the team fell on hard times, causal home attendance plummeted as well.
Passionate supporters of the club longed for a new home and, after years of discussions and planning, Audi Field finally opened in July. With a new venue and faithful supporters filling up the stands every home game, the pressure was on for United to deliver.
Then, in July, United would go on to acquire international star Wayne Rooney, who helped energize the team with his creative playmaking and goalscoring ability.
The team also saw the return of two key players. Midfielder Russell Canouse came back from injury and helped provide the team with some stability in the middle. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid also returned to the club after a stint in Denmark.
From the beginning of August until the end of the regular season in late October, United was a forced to be reckoned with. Everything just clicked.
The club also had the luxury of playing most of its remaining games at home. They took full advantage of it and, by the end of the regular season, United had put together an impressive 13-2-2 home record.
While the team only managed to score 31 goals last season, United scored 60 goals this time around. The club also had three scorers in double figures. Midfielder Luciano Acosta and forwards Wayne Rooney and Darren Mattocks each scored 10 goals this season. Acosta also excelled as a playmaker this year. He collected 17 total assists, the second highest total in the league this season.
It is also worth mentioning that the club did an excellent job defensively towards the end of the year. Defenders Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant played with great discipline and poise. With Birnbaum and Brillant in defense and Bill Hamid in goal, United only allowed 12 goals over its last 16 games.
Despite the early exit in the playoffs, D.C. United fans should be optimistic about the club’s future. Considering how the first few months of the season went, the team could have been just as bad as it was last year. However, it didn’t settle for mediocrity. United played each game with an incredible amount of effort and intensity. They also played with a winning mentality, a mentality that had been missing from the team before Rooney arrived.
While it fell short in the playoffs this time around, the future of D.C. United is still very bright.