ORLANDO — About 10 minutes after D.C. United’s first away victory since early last season, a 2-1 decision Sunday at Orlando City, Coach Ben Olsen turned down the locker-room hallway and, in a comment dripping with sarcasm, said, “That was easy.”
It was everything but easy, with United pinned in its own end much of the last half-hour and Wayne Rooney’s first-half brilliance fast becoming a distant memory.
United survived the assault, riding Rooney’s goal and assist to its first away triumph since a trip to San Jose in May and its first road victory against an Eastern Conference foe in almost two years.
United (3-0-1, 10 points) is off to its best start in 13 years, and it extended its regular season unbeaten streak to 14 games.
“Days like this come around, and there is a winning spirit about the group,” Olsen said. “We have guys who can make plays. Hopefully we can grow from it, take some lessons. Lessons are easier with three points.”
United gathered all three because Steve Birnbaum headed in Rooney’s free kick in the sixth minute and, after a moment of controversy, Rooney scored from an absurd angle in the 30th.
D.C. conceded a goal for the first time this year, Dom Dwyer’s header in the 63rd, and the visitors dodged several threats. The outcome set up an early-season showdown Saturday at Audi Field against league-best Los Angeles FC (4-0-1, 13 points).
With good results and no injuries or suspensions, Olsen started the same group in a fourth consecutive match for the first time since the middle of the 2014 season. The good fortune ended early: In attempting a slide tackle, left back Joseph Mora took a knee to the head and, with blood flowing from his mouth, received treatment on the field for several minutes.
He retreated to the locker room, then to a hospital for X-rays for a possible fractured jaw and a concussion.
“There are a few scenarios, none of them that great,” Olsen said. “We’ll check with the docs tonight. It’s a shame.”
Chris McCann, who won the MLS Cup title with Atlanta last year, made his D.C. debut.
By then, United had gone ahead. From beyond the right edge of the penalty area, Rooney lifted a free kick to the back side. Birnbaum made an unencumbered run and drove a six-yard header past goalkeeper Brian Rowe for his eighth career league goal.
Orlando (1-2-2) should have pulled even two minutes later, but Nani missed badly on a six-yard header. Rooney and Nani, the teams’ captains, were on the field together again after they won four English Premier League titles and a UEFA Champions League trophy as Manchester United teammates between 2007 and 2014.
United doubled its lead under odd and spectacular circumstances. Near the corner, Rooney drew a foul on Dwyer, whose slide did not make contact but was ruled reckless by referee Armando Villarreal.
“I see him coming, and I got out of the way because if I didn’t, it could’ve been a serious injury,” Rooney said. “As the referee said, it’s intent. I’m not stupid enough to stand in there and let him try to take my knee off.”
Given the spot of the foul, Rooney figured he would try to set up Birnbaum again. Instead, with Rowe protecting the near post, Rooney went for the back side of the target. He whipped the ball over the goalie and kissed it off the post — magnificent placement of a ball that traveled 36 yards.
"That’s just him and his ingenuity and his eye for the net,” D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid said.
Rooney has four goals and two assists in the past two matches. Asked when he decided to shoot, he said, “As soon as the ref gives it.”
As the shot whizzed past Rowe, United’s Frederic Brillant crashed into the keeper. But Villarreal and video assistant referee Hilario Grajeda did not believe the contact facilitated the goal.
“It’s embarrassing,” Orlando Coach James O’Connor said, questioning how video replay did not overturn the goal.
Orlando took command in the second half, hoarding possession and inserting additional attacking players.
After United’s Junior Moreno nicked the right post from 16 yards, the hosts halved the deficit when substitute Chris Mueller crossed to Dwyer for a simple header. The goal ended United’s shutout streak at 333 minutes this year and 435 minutes in regular season play since the penultimate match of 2018.
Laboring to keep the ball, United was forced to repel persistent pressure. Hamid came to the rescue in the 82nd minute with a fine save on Dwyer’s 25-yard bid. Mueller’s header hit the left post in stoppage time.
“The group is excited about the three points, but they also understand it wasn’t the greatest night,” Olsen said. “That is a healthy balance for this group.”
Note: Earl Edwards Jr., D.C.'s third-choice goalkeeper, had a shutout Saturday in his first Loudoun United appearance, a 0-0 draw at Tampa Bay. Loudoun is 0-1-2 midway through a six-game road stretch to start its expansion season in the second-division USL Championship. Griffin Yow, 16, played 84 minutes.