TORONTO — On the surface, D.C. United’s 2-0 victory at BMO Field on Saturday might have seemed like an empty accomplishment. After all, United continues to make significant strides this spring while Toronto FC, with an eighth consecutive loss, set the MLS record for defeats to start a season.
Behind the predictable outcome, however, was a satisfying and reassuring performance in the second half. Beset by injuries, fatigued by a demanding schedule and fielding a makeshift lineup, United (5-3-3) kept its patience against a bunkered opponent and broke open a scoreless match after halftime to maintain its grip on second place in the Eastern Conference.
“It wasn’t an easy game,” midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. “We had a lot going against us and we still came out with a win. That’s what you ask: You ask your team to respond, and we did.”
Pontius and Hamdi Salihi scored on outstanding strikes 20 minutes apart as United rebounded from a 5-3 loss at San Jose three days earlier.
“There were a lot of heavy legs out there,” said Olsen, whose squad was delayed for hours traveling from the Bay Area on Thursday and played its third match in eight days.
There were a lot of new faces, as well.
Bill Hamid, the club’s top-choice goalkeeper at the beginning of the season, started for the first time since the opener. Robbie Russell joined fellow defenders Emiliano Dudar, Dejan Jakovic and Ethan White with an injury.
So Olsen moved left back Daniel Woolard into the middle, inserted Chris Korb on the left and assigned Andy Najar, an attacking midfielder, to the right side of the defense.
Left wing Nick DeLeon, the early favorite for MLS rookie of the year honors, was scratched because of a minor hamstring ailment, allowing Lewis Neal to make his first MLS start.
Despite the dire situation, Toronto played conservatively in front of a restless crowd of 18,364. For 45 minutes, United labored to pierce the stacked resistance.
“You’re 0-7, why not go for the win?” United captain Dwayne De Rosario said of his former club. “It’s supposed to be attacking-style football. It was difficult for us to break down but they didn’t pose a threat going forward. I’m glad we kept our composure because it can get frustrating.”
At halftime, Olsen bolstered the attack by inserting Branko Boskovic into central midfield and moving De Rosario to the front line and Pontius to the left wing. United bubbled to life.
A moment after referee Mark Kadlecik missed an apparent Toronto handball on the goal line, Pontius collected Brandon McDonald’s pass and ripped a 23-yard drive into the top left corner.
“We weren’t getting behind them and we didn’t have a lot of movement behind the ball in the first half,” said Pontius, who is second on the team with five goals. “We knew it was going to take one play, one goal, for things to open up.”
Toronto’s problems deepened when midfielder Torsten Frings departed with a shoulder injury in the 67th minute.
Salihi entered in the 71st and scored in the 75th, latching onto McDonald’s header and cracking a contorted side-volley from eight yards to the far corner. It was his second goal in two matches after failing to score in his first six appearances.
“Every day I work for this,” said the Albanian striker, who arrived with great expectations. “I know what I can do, and the goals will come.”
Olsen praised Salihi’s patience during the unproductive stretch and scarce playing time.
“The guys from Europe understand it more than the Americans and guys like me,” Olsen said. “They are used to having such competition in their sides in Europe, so [sitting out] happens more often. When you get your chance, you better make the most of it.”
United will play at Houston next Saturday in the Dynamo’s first match at its new downtown stadium.