WASHINGTON -- When D.C. United learned about Dwayne De Rosario's knee injury on Sept. 13, it was stuck in a 2-5-2 slump and had fallen into sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, looking in at the playoffs from the outside.
The news of the 2011 MVP's sprained MCL seemed to spell doom for a United campaign that started promisingly, with high hopes of ending a four-year playoff drought.
So when United's season ended Sunday night with a 1-1 draw against Houston in the Eastern Conference final, you couldn't blame them for being a bit more upbeat than the average team that had just fallen at the final hurdle before MLS Cup.
“I’m glad we hung on this long,” head coach Ben Olsen said. “There has been obstacle after obstacle, and these kids just kept on pushing through.”
Rather than fall apart without De Rosario, the team galvanized, ripping off a 6-0-3 unbeaten run that only ended with a 3-1 defeat at Houston in the first leg of the conference final.
"We were grinding there for a while," Olsen said. "But I think these guys grew so much in such a short time period without Dwayne De Rosario and I thought we had a nice style about us. I’m just proud. I’m really proud to be a part of this.”
With a foundation of quality young players and an up-and-coming coach, United figures to be a force in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. Many of United's top players should have very long careers still ahead of them. Chris Pontius is 25. Nick DeLeon is 22, Bill Hamid, 21, Perry Kitchen, 20, and Andy Najar is still just 19.
“We talk about laying a foundation here and having something special for years to come and I believe it’s here. I really do," Olsen said. "This group is a bunch of great, young guys who are willing to fight and do what it takes."
United's foundation is youthful, but one of its core pillars is not. At 34, Dwayne De Rosario is still a high-class MLS player, but following the match, the team captain seemed to take the loss especially tough.
“We put our hearts and souls into this. We train hard and this is what we train hard for," De Rosario said. "To have that, to put that into perspective and have it end like that, it is definitely emotional.”
The Canadian spoke while slumped forward in his chair. He teared up multiple times while talking, and had to pause to regain his composure.
Though he had completed an improbable comeback, playing 28 minutes as a second-half sub in his first action since his injury, perhaps DeRo was starting to come to terms with his own immortality. He'll be 35 next May, an age where many players begin to tail off.
Which makes 2013 an even more crucial season for United. With the club's heart and soul aging, the team's young guns will have to step up and build on a successful 2012.
"This is an unbelievable group of guys, we’ve always stuck together," Hamid said.
"We’ve always been like brothers in here. I don’t think you guys realize how much of a bond we have in this locker room. It feels like a real brotherhood. We’re going to miss that, but we’re going to take that into next year and push for more.”
Follow GOAL.COM USA on Twitter