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.