D.C. United’s 100-goal scorer isn’t available for the remainder of the MLS season, felled by a knee injury. So on a night when it could ill-afford to drop valuable points, United turned to a first-goal scorer to invigorate its playoff hopes.
Lewis Neal, a 31-year-old reserve midfielder who served most of his career in his native England, scored for the first time this season seven minutes after entering Saturday as United defeated the New England Revolution, 2-1, and reclaimed the final postseason slot in MLS’s Eastern Conference.
Neal’s 63rd-minute strike from 18 yards capped a desperately needed comeback by United (13-10-5, 44 points), which set a club record with its 14th consecutive home game without a loss.
Playing without injured star Dwayne De Rosario and returning from a two-week break, United labored throughout much of the match and relied on Bill Hamid to make two sensational late saves to preserve the victory in front of 15,104 at RFK Stadium.
The outcome propelled United ahead of the Columbus Crew (12-10-6, 42) for fifth place with six matches remaining. D.C. is also just two points behind the Houston Dynamo for the fourth position and has a game in hand.
“It’s going to change again and again and again,” Coach Ben Olsen said of the playoff race. “I hope it changes with us continuing to move forward. We’ve got a couple of games coming up we should do well in, but it’s going to take a much better performance than this. We were rusty. We did not look good.”
Despite a hazardous defensive performance, United defeated the Revolution (7-15-7) for the third time this season.
Without De Rosario, the 2011 league MVP who scored his 100th career regular season goal three weeks ago, United lacked nuance, explosiveness and a player who could single-handedly alter the course of a match. Chris Pontius helped compensate with a first-half equalizer and an assist on Neal’s goal.
“I just let Pontius do his work,” said Neal, who played for Orlando City in the U.S. third division last season and was making his 14th appearance for United.
While congratulating Pontius via text messaging Friday night about the American’s new contract, Neal said they had a “bit of banter” about the Englishman registering a goal or assist the next day.
“We’re going to have to text before every game now just to see if it can help either of us get a goal or an assist,” Neal said with a smile. He had entered for Branko Boskovic, a playmaker who doesn’t have the fitness to last a full match.
“We knew at some point [Boskovic] would have to come off,” Olsen said. “It looked like he was starting to fade a little bit. . . . [Neal] hasn’t gotten that much time this year. He’s a true pro and I’m happy for him to get the winner.”
Aside from Neal’s goal, Pontius’s production and Hamid’s saves, United struggled against the Revolution (1-11-2 on the road), which went ahead in the 29th minute when Diego Fagundez, 17, set up Kelyn Rowe for a rising blast over Hamid.
United answered three minutes later. With time and space, Boskovic surveyed multiple options before finding Pontius for a low one-timer from 25 yards, his team-best 11th goal.
United’s defense, however, continued to live dangerously and was fortunate not to concede another. But two minutes after Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis stopped Maicon Santos’s clear attempt, Pontius worked the left side and touched the ball to Neal for a left-footed one-timer into the right corner.
“I saw Lewis sitting there,” Pontius said. “I meant to hit the ball a little slower to him. I put some pace on it and he did well with it.”
Hamid’s reflex saves and some fortunate bounces allowed United to escape. “It was hectic back there,” Hamid said. “We got a little mixed up in the end, but we stayed strong.”
United notes: In pregame ceremonies, Olsen was inducted into the Hall of Tradition for his service as a midfielder between 1998 and 2009 and De Rosario was honored for scoring his 100th goal. . . . United will visit the Philadelphia Union (7-13-6) on Thursday.