Lewis Neal is ‘nice piece to the puzzle’ for D.C. United


Hamdi Salihi and Lewis Neal, middle, celebrate a goal against Colorado. Neal helped set up both goals in the 2-0 win on Wednesday. (Ned Dishman/GETTY IMAGES)

D.C. United’s preseason outing against Real Salt Lake in Arizona allowed the coaching staff to evaluate its own players vying for the final roster slots. It also presented an opportunity to watch an opponent, Lewis Neal, a well-traveled English winger on trial with the Utah team.

United had taken interest in Neal last year when he was playing for third-division Orlando City SC. Real, however, claimed his rights and invited him to training camp. Two days after playing one half against United, Neal was released.

“And we jumped on it,” United Coach Ben Olsen recounted Friday.

A week of workouts in Washington persuaded United to sign him. After three appearances as a substitute totaling 15 minutes and an unmemorable start at Toronto FC two weeks ago, Neal was instrumental in both scoring sequences during United’s 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday.

Midway through the first half, Neal initiated the counterattack from United’s end and embarked on a 30-yard run. With striker Hamdi Salihi drawing attention, the middle opened for Neal to thread a diagonal ball to Dwayne De Rosario in stride for a nine-yard finish.

“As soon as I saw Hamdi come across, out of the corner of my eye, I could see DeRo running into the space,” Neal said.

In the 60th minute, Neal’s cross set up Branko Boskovic for a sharp header. Matt Pickens made a superb reflex save but Salihi swept in the rebound.

With the lineup unsettled, Lewis will probably return to a reserve role Saturday night, when United (6-4-3) faces Toronto (0-8-0) at RFK Stadium.

Nick DeLeon, Chris Pontius and Boskovic are options on the left flank, but Neal’s performance Wednesday proved his capacity to contribute during a long regular season.

“He has good ideas and composure. You see his comfort on the ball and how he delivers those balls,” teammate Josh Wolff said. “He has been a nice piece to the puzzle.”

Neal, who will turn 31 in July, rose through the Stoke City youth system in England and spent five years with the club in the second and third tiers. (He also had a year on loan in Iceland.)

Between 2005 and ’11, Neal represented Preston North End, Notts County, Carlisle and then Shrewsbury Town in the fourth tier. His boyhood ties to Stoke City, though, brought him to Florida last year.

Phil Rawlins, Orlando’s part-owner and president, is a former Stoke executive who sits on the Premier League club’s board of directors. Orlando Coach Adrian Heath is a former Stoke player. Through Rawlins, Orlando and Stoke have a formal affiliation.

“It was always a case of being a steppingstone and then pushing on, hopefully to MLS,” Neal said. “I had a brilliant time there, but they knew I was looking for an opportunity in this league.”

After Orlando won the 2011 USL Pro championship, Neal said he played in a reserve match for Real Salt Lake last fall before being invited to training camp. Real didn’t offer him a contract, opening the move to Washington on a one-year deal.

“Now it’s up to me,” Neal said, “to prove to them I am worth keeping.”

United notes: De Rosario was selected by Canada for the June 3 friendly against the United States in Toronto and two subsequent World Cup qualifiers. With MLS thinning the schedule in late May and early June, he would miss one or two U.S. Open Cup matches but no league games. . . .

Starting right back Robbie Russell (hamstring) isn’t expected to play and DeLeon (hamstring) will probably miss his third straight game. Goalkeeper Joe Willis (eye contusion) is doubtful. Pontius, Dejan Jakovic, Emiliano Dudar, Maicon Santos and Marcelo Saragosa are listed as probable but unlikely to start.

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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