D.C. United scores three goals in first half, takes over first place in MLS Eastern Conference


Coach Ben Olsen, shown in June, has D.C. United atop the Eastern Conference in MLS. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

D.C. United departed an unusually silent Sporting Park on Saturday night with its first road victory against Kansas City in seven years. It left with first-place honors in the Eastern Conference and, for at least a day, the most points in all of Major League Soccer — an extraordinary feat given the depths of its misery just a year ago.

With a clinical display of finishing, United scored three goals in seven minutes of the first half against the league’s stingiest defense and skipped past defending champion Sporting Kansas City in the conference standings with a 3-0 victory before a sellout crowd of 19,963.

Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe and Perry Kitchen struck in rapid succession as United (13-7-4, 43 points) found itself in first place at the latest stage of a season since October 2007. D.C. is not only a point ahead of Kansas City (12-7-6) but has played one fewer match.

“It’s nice for these guys to be on top for all the hard work they have put in, but they get it,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “They get that there is more to this than right now.”

Right now, though, United (3-24-7 in 2013) remains on pace for the greatest one-year turnaround in MLS history. The club had gone nine straight games without a victory at Kansas City and arrived here at the midway point of the most rigorous stretch of the year: five games in 15 days.

But United seized early control and handed the hosts their worst regular season loss since Sporting Park opened in 2011.

D.C. continued a notable scoring blitz: From the middle of the second half against Colorado last weekend to the third goal against Kansas City, United scored six times in 54 minutes.

In between those league games, Olsen fielded a reserve unit for a CONCACAF Champions League match Wednesday, leaving the regulars well-rested to face Sporting. Conversely, Kansas City’s Peter Vermes used many of his regulars in a Champions League game in Nicaragua on Tuesday.

United assistant Amos Magee “told us they try to create a lot but they give up a lot, and if we finish our chances, it’s going to be a good night,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “We were good and maybe we caught a team that was a little leggy, a little tired.”

United was under duress for about 15 minutes before responding with fury.

It began in the 24th minute when Espindola beat Aurelien Collin on the sideline, and when the defender recovered, Espindola cut the ball back and unleashed a low drive targeting the far corner.

Rolfe was almost in line with the shot and lifted his leg, an act that might have distracted goalkeeper Jon Kempin for an instant. The low bid remained on course and settled into the right side for Espindola’s ninth goal.

United blew open the match by beating Kansas City’s high line for clear runs at the beleaguered Kempin.

In the 28th minute, Luis Silva flicked the ball ahead to Rolfe, who had toed the offside line and bore down at the charging Kempin for his sixth goal.

Three minutes later, Kitchen exposed Kansas City’s committed back line, collecting Rolfe’s through ball on the left side. Sporting begged for an offside flag; there was none. Kitchen surged into the penalty area and cut back on the flailing Collin before beating Kempin for his fourth goal.

“After the first couple of times we got behind them, we started to realize that there is space there, so why not hit a ball?” Kitchen said. “And then we took advantage of our chances.”

Nick DeLeon’s low bid hit the base of the right post in the 53rd minute, and Kempin disrupted Rolfe’s run.

Sporting continued to press: Graham Zusi stung the crossbar from 22 yards, and Soony Saad missed by a whisker. Bill Hamid was unbreakable in recording his sixth shutout.

“The job is not done,” defender Sean Franklin said. “As much as we want to celebrate this win, we want to stay in first place. And it doesn’t get any easier.”

United will visit Los Angeles on Wednesday and host New York next Sunday.

Note: The fourth-seeded Washington Spirit (10-9-5) is in Seattle to face the top-seeded Reign (16-2-6) in a National Women’s Soccer League semifinal Sunday. Kickoff is at 11 p.m. on ESPN2. The winner will advance to the Aug. 31 final against No. 2 FC Kansas City, which defeated defending champion Portland, 2-0, on Saturday.

Toronto settles for draw

Toronto FC settled for a 2-2 draw with the visiting Chicago Fire on Saturday.

Gilberto gave Toronto (9-8-6) a 2-1 lead in the 78th minute, but the home side was unable to hold on as Quincy Amarikwa tied it at 2-2 in the 90th minute.

A Fire own goal in the first half accounted for Toronto’s other goal while former TFC forward Robert Earnshaw had the lone goal for Chicago (4-6-14).

●RED BULLS 4, IMPACT 2: Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips each scored two second-half goals to lead New York (7-7-10) against Montreal (4-15-5) in Harrison, N.J.

Wright-Phillips has a MLS-leading 20 goals on the season — breaking Juan Pablo Angel’s club record of 19.

●CREW 3, DYNAMO 0: Justin Meram had a goal and an assist to lead host Columbus (8-8-9) against Houston (7-13-4).

Adam Bedell and Aaron Schoenfeld also scored for the Crew.

●REVOLUTION 1, CHIVAS USA 0: Lee Nguyen scored the only goal of the game in the 56th minute to lead New England (9-12-3) past Chivas USA (6-12-6) in Foxborough, Mass.

— Associated Press

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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