D.C. United will spend almost the entire balance of the MLS season at Buzzard Point, match after match at a new venue where the quality of soccer and the results have turned its way this summer. But the first of seven consecutive home dates Wednesday — a laborious 2-1 victory over Minnesota United — looked and felt more like an away test.
D.C. did not perform well, the players agreed afterward. Touches were off, energy was low, ideas came and went.
Early in the second half, Ben Olsen’s gang faced a deficit against a foe that had not won on the road since March. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid required treatment for a sore knee.
The announced crowd of 16,114 at Audi Field grew increasingly restless. This was a team surging toward postseason?
But in the space of four minutes, boosted by a Jamaican forward who had just returned from national team duty, United rallied for two goals to close the gap in the Eastern Conference’s tight playoff chase. Ulises Segura scored the equalizer in the 65th minute and Darren Mattocks, a member of Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz, shattered the deadlock in the 69th as D.C. (9-11-7) pulled within two points of Montreal (11-14-3) for the sixth and last spot.
“It was probably one of our worst performances of the year,” defender Steve Birnbaum said. “To win the game, that’s a positive, but we can’t play like that going forward. It’s not good enough and everyone knows it.”
It turned out to be good enough, but just barely. Minnesota (9-16-2) had gone ahead less than two minutes into the second half on Angelo Rodriguez’s second-chance goal.
“We have to do better if we’re going to make the playoffs,” D.C. forward Wayne Rooney said. “It would be silly for us to throw the opportunity we have away now.”
The opportunity is there, thanks to a backloaded home schedule that will not force the team to travel until the regular season finale Oct. 28 at Chicago. But D.C. will need to continue winning at Audi Field, where it is 7-2-0 since the grand opening in mid-July.
Said Olsen: “On a day where, to a man, we are a little bit off the pace and not as sharp and still missing some guys, to be able to still get three points is very impressive.”
Four days after just 15 players were available because of international duty and injuries, D.C. welcomed back three important figures: Mattocks (Jamaica); right back Oniel Fisher, who had missed two matches with a hamstring ailment; and U.S. midfielder Paul Arriola.
With a more complete lineup, United enjoyed the bulk of possession but lacked precision against a shorthanded and vulnerable backline. Minnesota lost another defender, right back Jerome Thiesson, to injury after 14 minutes.
Rooney and Luciano Acosta worked terrific combinations in the first half but couldn’t find the target.
Eighty seconds after intermission, D.C. was caught by Minnesota’s strength: the counterattack. Darwin Quintero led the breakout and supplied Rodriguez infiltrating the left side of the penalty area. Kofi Opare blocked the first bid, but Rodriguez reacquired the ball and fired an angled shot past Hamid for his first goal since arriving in July.
Olsen made a pivotal adjustment in the 58th minute, adding Mattocks earlier than he usually enters and dropping midfielder Chris Durkin into central defense. United gained traction.
Segura gathered an Acosta pass intended for Rooney and, after shielding the ball from Carter Manley, turned and tagged a left-footed effort into the right corner from 14 yards for his second goal of the campaign.
After Hamid made a fine save on Quintero, D.C. seized the lead. Acosta launched a long ball down the left side. Joseph Mora beat Manley to it, turned the corner and crossed into the six-yard box for Mattocks to one-time past Bobby Shuttleworth for his team-best 10th goal.
“It’s nice to get more than 10 minutes off the bench for once,” said Mattocks, who had lost his starting job when Rooney arrived this summer. “When you’ve got depth like we have and we have someone like me leading the team in goals and I’m coming off the bench, you’re going to need it. Tonight was a night where depth played a part.”
On Sunday, Mattocks had scored twice for his country. On Wednesday, he provided an invaluable goal for his club.
Said Olsen: “The game needed energy and the game needed a threat.”
D.C. notes: Midfielder Yamil Asad (nine goals, five assists) missed his fourth consecutive match with an ankle injury. …Midfielders Zoltan Stieber (Hungarian national team duty) and Junior Moreno (Venezuela) are expected to return to active duty Sunday against the first-place New York Red Bulls.