WASHINGTON – Black and red plastic sheets sat gently draped across the orange seat backs at RFK Stadium, a now-withered representation of the pandemonium that swept through the old building roughly two hours earlier.
At the start of the match, the tifo created by D.C. United’s supporters was remarkable. Stripes of color popped, highlighted by the words “You can’t hold us back – we are United” – a nod to goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s now-infamous sound bite from two weeks prior.
The underdog spirit that was embraced by United throughout their remarkable playoff run was present again Sunday evening in front of a stadium packed full of black-clad supporters. But ultimately, a two-goal deficit in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship proved too much for the tattered group to overcome.
Injuries piled up as the weather turned colder and for a youthful side that holds much promise for the future, a 1-1 draw against Houston on their home pitch marked the club’s last match of a memorable campaign.
United coach Ben Olsen ran his left hand through his hair while addressing the media after the game and at times rested his cheek on his fist. But despite his disappointed exterior, his words glowed with hope and optimism.
“We talk about laying a foundation here,” Olsen said. “Having something special for years to come. And I believe that it’s here. I really do. It’s a bunch of great young guys who are willing to fight and do what it takes. This experience was invaluable for them, being in these real games down the stretch. It’s a special group. There’s a certain character and spirit that makes me proud to be a part of them.”
United went through a lot by any standard. Losing captain Dwayne De Rosario to injury in September kicked off a wild series of events, highlighted by a weather-delayed, suspension-filled series against New York in the semifinals and an injury-riddled first leg in Houston.
“Watching Houston celebrate here at the end was obviously not a nice feeling and we need to remember that for next time we’re in that position,” midfielder Lewis Neal said. “We want to be on that podium picking up a trophy.”
Optimism, however, comes in the fact that many of the players who experienced this run are so young. Key first-choice starters who are currently 25-years-old or younger include Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Chris Korb, Andy Najar, Chris Pontius and Hamid.
“There’s a bunch of young guys on this team that are great footballers,” Hamid said. “It’s been a great learning year for a lot of us young guys. We can only take those experiences into next year. Remember the mistakes, remember the positives and keep building.”
Olsen himself wasn’t sure how his club would respond after losing De Rosario. He changed things tactically – implored the group to commit to a defensive mentality – and the result was a nine-match unbeaten streak en route to the Eastern Conference’s second seed.
“It was a big blow,” Olsen said of De Rosario’s injury. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I really didn’t. I knew we were going to have a good response, but I didn’t know if we were going to be good enough. … They proved a lot of people wrong. A lot of people wrote them off numerous times this year and the way this group kept kicking was pretty impressive.”
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