Through long-term injuries and myriad absences, disheartening second-half melodrama and stirring last-gasp goals, D.C. United has found ways to secure points this spring and rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The unbeaten streak is six; the unbeaten mark at RFK Stadium is 16 across all competitions since last summer.
Before a crowd of 13,107, United scored twice in the first half and managed the lead with much better dedication than the previous two home dates, when it squandered late leads and settled for draws.
“First and foremost, I liked our attitude,” forward Chris Rolfe said. “We haven’t necessarily shown the best attitude the first couple home games. The commitment was there from us. It set the tone for the game.”
In his second match back from a six-game suspension, Fabian Espindola set the tone with his first goal and an assist on Sean Franklin’s volley late in the half.
“Getting back into form wasn’t a real concern of ours, physically and mentally,” Coach Ben Olsen said of Espindola, the team’s MVP last year. “This is what he does. He plays soccer for a living and he wants to score goals. It was great to have him back out there. He plays with a fire that we all love. The guys rally behind his energy.”
The Crew (3-3-2) rode into Washington with a four-game unbeaten streak and seven goals in the previous two matches. At the start, Argentine maestro Federico Higuain and his pack of attackers were on the prowl; this, by no means, was going to be a carefree night for D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who was returning from a two-game injury absence.
But United also found an early rhythm, and in the 15th minute, a swift counterattack produced the first goal. Rolfe led the charge, bolting out of D.C.’s end and threading a through ball to Espindola in stride for a free run into the box.
Almost a year ago, in the dying moments of a tied match, Espindola tried to outfox Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark with a chipped penalty kick down the middle. Clark sensed it coming and made an easy catch. In the run of play Saturday, Espindola did not mess around. His run was direct, his shot was clinical.
“Great ball by Chris,” Espindola said. “It’s important for me to get the first one.”
Said Rolfe: “It’s easy with Fabi, right? You just have to make sure you time it right so he has a chance to get to it. And then he does the rest. It’s good to have him back.”
United used a set piece to extend the lead in the 41st minute. Espindola provided the service, Franklin the finish. Espindola’s corner kick pulled Clark off his line, but the keeper ran into traffic and had no play on the ball. Franklin waited on the back side for a six-yarder into the near corner for his seventh career goal in 197 regular season appearances.
“I wasn’t worried about the goalie getting it. I was just trying to get to my spot,” Franklin said. “Fabi did the hard part putting the ball in the right area.”
The Crew’s best chance of the half came in the final moments when Justin Meram smashed a running volley just off target.
The last time United had a two-goal lead in the second half, the New York Red Bulls answered with a pair of goals three weeks ago to steal a point at RFK. Columbus’s urgency led to sustained possession and Higuain’s near-miss on a diving header. For the most part, though, United remained organized.
In the 65th minute, United got caught on the counterattack, but Ethan Finlay couldn’t apply the finishing touch on Kei Kamara’s cross.
The night, though, belonged to Espindola and a D.C. team rounding into form.
“We’re at our best,” midfielder Davy Arnaud said of his Argentine teammate, “when he’s good.”
United notes: Sporting Kansas City will visit RFK next Saturday. … Peruvian midfielder Hernan Hinostroza, 21, was not offered a contract after a brief tryout.