TORONTO — Maicon Santos probably should have crossed the ball. Instead, he shot it. Milos Kocic should’ve made a routine stop. Instead, he spilled it. Hamdi Salihi could’ve stopped making his central run. Instead, he remained in stride.
One split-second sequence in the fading moments of D.C. United’s 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday at half-full BMO Field encapsulated both teams’ divergent seasons and further strengthened United’s grip on an MLS playoff berth.
Kocic, a former D.C. prospect, committed his blunder in the 88th minute of a match that Toronto, the league’s worst team, had threatened to steal. Santos’s angled bid from distance slipped off and under the goalkeeper, allowing Salihi to score for the first time in more than three months.
“I felt a little like a thief,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “That game could’ve gone either way. Most of our games can go either way. We are just finding ways to win.”
This one extended United’s unbeaten streak to five and, with a Columbus loss to first-place Kansas City on Sunday, D.C. would all but seal its first postseason slot in five years. With two matches left, United (16-10-6, 54 points) also is in the running to finish in the top three and earn a first-round bye.
However, if not for Kocic’s gaffe and counterpart Bill Hamid’s two tremendous saves, United would’ve been staring at less optimistic scenarios.
For much of the second half, Toronto (5-20-7) was the better side and seemed poised to end an 11-game winless streak. But with three fresh attackers, including Salihi and Santos, United broke through.
Santos made a strong run on the right flank and gave it a go.
“I was yelling at Maicon when he took that shot: ‘What are you doing?’ ” Chris Pontius said with a smile. “Me and Branko [Boskovic] were making runs, and he shoots that. I am like, ‘What the . . . ?’ ”
In fact, when Santos shot, Boskovic immediately turned toward him and began gesturing. Boskovic’s back was still turned when Salihi tapped it in.
Said Santos: “My mind was set: a shot. How many shots did we have in the game? Not much.”
Three, to be exact. The second was low and hard but at Kocic, who failed to cover it. “I lost the game,” he said. He might have had time to recover, but Salihi hadn’t stopped running and was in position to capitalize.
“I believed until the end the ball would come to me. And also I was a little bit lucky,” said the Albanian striker, who has scored three of his six goals against Toronto in an otherwise disappointing season.
Defender Brandon McDonald calls Salihi “the Ghost Man. The guy just appears in front of the goal wherever the ball is and scores. We don’t understand it. He’s always in the right spots.”
Until that point, United labored. Its ambition was to exploit Toronto’s tattered morale and dictate terms. The hosts, however, played with spirit and ambition — if not clinical precision — and caused several anxious moments.
Hamid made a leg save on Luis Silva’s redirect of Reggie Lambe’s cross in the first half and a soaring touch on Ryan Johnson’s drive in the second.
Despite Toronto’s severe flaws, United doesn’t have the make-up, without injured star Dwayne De Rosario, to overwhelm fragile opponents. D.C. must grind its way through matches and maintain patience. So while United enjoyed ample possession, it lacked a killer pass or individual run.
Lionard Pajoy had two chances in the first half and Pontius missed a 12-yard one-timer in the 68th minute. Then, after enduring a horrible spell and several threats, United turned a harmless shot into gold.
“We found a way, and that’s what we have been doing lately,” Olsen said. “We are not saying we are the top team in the league right now, but there’s something about us, the spirit and finding ways to win.”