Coach Ben Olsen's mostly unnoticed campaign to return D.C. United to its former Major League Soccer glory reached an important milestone last night. United clinched a spot in the 2012 playoffs with a 3-2, come-twice-from-behind win over the Columbus Crew.
Lewis Neal scored the winner in stoppage time. The dramatic goal bought United three priceless points that leap United to second in the Eastern Conference standings. The loss also eliminated the Crew from contention.
D.C. now sits just three points below Sporting Kansas City. It can finish on top of the conference with a win over Chicago in the last regular-season game on October 27 (coupled with a Sporting loss to Philadelphia three days earlier).
Is anyone outside the Washington Beltway noticing?
Though United has won the league cup four times, D.C. has not appeared in the playoffs since 2007, when Olsen was playing for, rather than coaching, the side.
Most observers noted the improved talent. The D.C. roster includes reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario, a healthy Chris Pontius back from a broken leg and Honduran national Andy Najar. Before the start of this season, United added Nick DeLeon, Danny Cruz, Emiliano Dudar and Hamdi Salihi.
The touted newcomers would add depth up and down the field, most acknowledged, but talk of a United return to glory felt premature.
That may prove correct. For fans of the black and red, though, making the playoffs beats the alternative. The dry spell has been long enough to erase elite expectations. Now, just being there is enough.