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D.C. United fades out in MLS playoffs, but pride is back

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Just 30 minutes remained in the season. The possibility of a crazy three-goal comeback was fading quicker than the day. So D.C. United’s coach gave his team and its buoyant fans one last adrenaline rush, a prayer of a substitution, a player they all knew. A humongous roar and dozens of flags waved in the cold at RFK Stadium.

Dwayne De Rosario, the best player in Major League Soccer a year ago, high-stepped in place in the match’s 62nd minute. When Emiliano Dudar touched hands with him, he sprinted to midfield amid more roars in the Eastern Conference finals against the Houston Dynamo.

Their MVP was back.

De Rosario was supposed to be lost to United for the season after he sprained his knee playing for the Canadian national team on Sept. 11. But Ben Olsen got his players to rally, and they were unbeaten in nine games before they ran into a more experienced, deeper Houston team.

“It was a big blow,” Olsen said of the loss of De Rosario. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, I really didn’t. I knew we’d have a good response, but I didn’t know we were going to be good enough. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to the do the job. I had my doubts, to be honest.

“But I also knew there was that spirit I’m talking about with this group. They proved a lot of people wrong. The times people wrote us off and this group kept kickin’ was pretty impressive.”

In the aggregate-goal world of soccer, United needed to win by 3-1 by the time De Rosario entered the game — and that would only ensure the match went to extra time and, who knows, a penalty-kick shootout for the right to play in the team’s first MLS Cup since 2004.

Suddenly, chances grew out of desperation. United goalie Bill Hamid began making point-blank stops. And then . . . goal! Branko Boskovic’s pretty strike knotted the score at 1.

The entire lower bowl, filled with flags and chanting black-and-red clad revelers, exploded in sound. It hadn’t been that loud since maybe 2007, when United entered the playoffs with the best record before bowing out early, three years after its last of four championships.

Back then, when Olsen played alongside Jaime Moreno and so many dazzling playmakers, wins in late fall became almost expected.

But this felt different, more personal for the 20,000 in attendance. A group of mostly 20-somethings had played themselves into contention without their best player, played themselves into the hearts and minds of people who weathered several years of losing and rebuilding. Missing their leading goal scorer, their best defender and a completely healthy De Rosario, that group was just one game away from playing the ultimate game.

See, if De Rosario was back Sunday night, so too was D.C. United.

By now, you know the score. Olsen’s charged-up players couldn’t manufacture a first-half goal or a miracle in the final minutes. A 1-1 draw went down as an aggregate, two-game 4-2 loss.

Dies the season, dies the shot to play for a title.

But the future lives and breathes.

Long view, this team returned the optimism this franchise had misplaced for many of the past five years.

And that’s something.

At the end, the image of Houston’s players in their creamsicle jerseys atop the MLS Eastern Conference champion dais was juxtaposed by United’s players in the background, saluting their incredibly loyal base. (These faithful zealots came up with a color-coordinated statement to start the game, the white-lettered words, “YOU CAN’T HOLD US BACK — WE ARE UNITED” against a black-and-red backdrop that looked as organized and impressive as it was ominous.)

Among the players was Chris Korb, a defender who was shirtless in 45-degree weather after apparently giving his game jersey to a fan.

Several players and coaches were said to tear up in the postgame locker room. “It was emotional,” said Chris Pontius, the injured defender. “We didn’t want this ride to end.” Olsen, he said, told the players he was proud of them, “that this is a group to build off of,” that “we’ve got the right team here now, we’ve got the right type of players to win games.”

Pontius added: “I feel like we got the community back and behind us — not that we didn’t before. But there’s a lot of interest now.”

That’s why there is no better time to close a long-overdue, soccer-specific stadium deal in Buzzard Point, near Nationals Park. Ground could be broken sometime in 2013. By 2015, they could commit this too-big, too-old relic to memory — the way the Redskins did, oh, in 1997, and the Nationals did in 2007.

It’s time a franchise as committed as this one to the town and its legions — one of just two MLS teams out of 19 with a stadium problem – is made whole by a city that once footed a neophyte Major League Baseball team $600 million for a new home.

Seeing this young crew and its quickly maturing coach — which should stay together for at least a few years — come together, bond and then pull out win after win, a real home is the least United and its promising future deserve.

“We changed formations, we’ve changed styles of play throughout the season,” Olsen said. “The way we’ve adapted is probably the story of the year. When someone goes down, we had to change. Their willingness to change, their willingness to buy in to whatever I was selling, you know, crazy or not, they were willing to do whatever we wanted or needed to do to survive.”

On the last night of the season, the first season in a long time that meant something, Olsen added: “I’m just proud. I’m just really proud to be part of this group.”

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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