“It was like the old days,” said Coach Ben Olsen, who played 12 years for United. “I don’t like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt like the good old days, and I would like to keep that around.”
Backed by 19,647, the largest crowd of the year, Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Saragosa scored the critical tying goal early in the second half, his first of the season to cap the second comeback of the evening.
In added time, with the Crew needing to win in order to keep its playoff hopes alive, United took advantage of ample space in Columbus’s back. Branko Boskovic steered the ball to Neal, who one-timed a low shot past charging goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.
United exhaled and celebrated — a moment five years in the making.
“It was an unbelievable effort and it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Neal said. “We’ve done what we set out to do and know we can prepare for something bigger.”
In extending its unbeaten streaks at home (12-0-4) and overall (5-0-1), United (17-10-6, 57 points) overtook the Chicago Fire (17-11-5, 56) for second place in MLS’s Eastern Conference and drew within three points of Sporting Kansas City with one week remaining. Sporting can clinch the top seed with a victory or draw at home Wednesday against Philadelphia.
D.C. will visit Chicago on Saturday with an opportunity to secure a first-round bye and an automatic spot in the conference semifinals, which begin in two weeks.
“Relief, excitement — it’s been a long time coming,” leading scorer Chris Pontius said. “Everyone is excited for the opportunity. We’re sitting in a good position. We put ourselves in a good position.”
It didn’t start out well, though.
The Crew went ahead in the seventh minute on Eddie Gaven’s finish, and two minutes after United’s Nick DeLeon set a club rookie scoring record with his sixth goal, Jairo Arrieta restored Columbus’s advantage in the 41st with a bending shot that hit the right post and deflected off diving goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s trailing foot.
But in the 59th minute, Saragosa struck a 22-yard one-timer through a tangle of players and into the lower right corner.
Brandon McDonald made it possible with a play that epitomized United’s determination. Off a set piece, the center back failed to cleanly win a high ball but stuck with it and swept a pass to Saragosa, a defensive midfielder who recorded his third goal in 131 MLS regular season appearances.
“I had to take the opportunity; I had to score the goal,” he said. “I am the player that works hard every time, but I needed to do something different.”
In describing the goal, Saragosa also spoke of his father, Gilson, who died in April at age 60. “I scored this goal with my heart,” he said.
Columbus suffered a pregame setback when starting center back Chad Marshall was scratched because of ankle tightness. His partner in the previous five matches, Julius James, was ruled out Friday with a hamstring injury.
United had not lost since Sept. 1 but hadn’t played any playoff contenders either. Without injured star Dwayne De Rosario, United turned to blue-collar tactics to grind out results and move into postseason contention.
“We’ve grown closer since Dwayne went down,” Olsen said. “It was survival. Everybody understood we have to be a real team and commit to each other and bail each other out. Slowly over this six-week period it has got us to the point where we are today. Everyone is buying into it.”
Olsen received contributions Saturday from a pair of industrious veterans, Saragosa and Neal, who are in their first season with United. The defense showed cracks but withstood pressure by the Crew (14-12-7) while the match was still even.
When Neal scored, a playoff berth firmly in hand, Olsen leaped onto the emptying bench and nearly tumbled. At the final whistle, Hamid said he “started running with my arms in the air and kind of blacked out because this is something special.”
Said midfielder Perry Kitchen: “It’s a whole new season now.”
One that United hasn’t experienced in a long time.