Thursday October 29th, 2015

WASHINGTON — RFK Stadium wasn’t full, but there were more than 11,500 in the bouncing, rickety stands on a rainy Wednesday night and they were in good voice before Juan Agudelo struck.

The New England Revolution forward’s acrobatic and audacious bicycle kick, which gave the visitors a 15th-minute lead in Wednesday’s MLS Cup knockout round game, stunned just about all who saw it. The shouts of ecstatic men on the Revolution bench were heard in the mostly-silent stadium. And although there’s no cheering in the press box, there’s frequently an audible gasp or exclamation when something significant occurs. Not this time. Everyone seemed awestruck by a goal for the ages.

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D.C. United was stunned and took a few minutes to find its footing. In the 17th, Revolution midfielder Kelyn Rowe had two point-blank looks at the D.C. net. Fortunately for the hosts, goalkeeper Bill Hamid had collected himself and made the saves that kept United in the game.

“That’s why we have Bill,” United coach Ben Olsen said moments after D.C.’s come-from-behind, 2–1 triumph. “That’s what he does for us. Some teams have Giovincos. We’ve got a Bill.”

United does have the reigning MLS goalkeeper of the year. But that’s not all. There’s a veteran resilience about this team that's made a massive difference in a season that now will continue this weekend. D.C. is devoid of big-name, big-money superstars and is aging. Several key players—including leading scorers Chris Rolfe, Álvaro Saborío and Fabián Espíndola, defenders Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin and midfielder Marcus Halsti—are in their 30s.

But what United may lack in youth and speed they’ve gained in poise and experience. Goals like Agudelo’s stun them but don’t sink them. Deficits are there to be overcome. D.C. (16-13-6) led MLS in comeback wins with eight—more than half its full-year total. And results like Sunday’s regular season finale, a 5–0 thumping by the Columbus Crew, are processed in a healthy way. Whether it’s resolve, denial or some of both, United bounced back and played with confidence and vigor on Wednesday, rather than like a team that doubted itself.

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“Any time you have a loss like we did, everybody has to evaluate themselves and I think more times than not, you get a response from that. And it’s usually positive,” Olsen said. “A loss like that, it hurts you and you want to prove that’s not who you are. I’m proud of the guys, once again, for dealing with some of that adversity.”

Said Boswell, “Here’s the thing. We’ve got so many guys in this room with so much experience that there aren’t a lot of situations we weren’t prepared for ... We’ve been in these situations. Columbus, all these other things, they’re all building blocks for moving forward if you use them in the right way. Tonight, I think it was an example of using some of those things—come back from a goal down and win the game, 2–1, late. Bill pulls us out when we need him to. That’s kind of D.C. in a nutshell if you ask me. That’s been our whole season.”

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Wednesday’s game was everything that do-or-die contests typically aren’t. It was wide-open and full of great scoring chances, good possession and daring. Both teams came agonizingly close to more goals, and New England (14-13-8) left RFK extremely aggrieved that a stoppage time handball on Franklin went unsanctioned by referee Mark Geiger. Revolution midfielder Jermaine Jones, who was denied at the doorstep by Hamid moments earlier, lost his mind at the non-call, bumped Geiger twice and was ejected. Geiger said through a pool reporter that Franklin's arm “was in a natural position” and that it was “a case of ball-to-hand.”

United, however, kept its cool as it recovered from Agudelo’s astonishing opener. The hosts came close to leveling the score when Espíndola missed a 21st-minute sitter and Rolfe then hit the crossbar. They finally equalized on a looping header by Chris Pontius seconds before intermission.

“I think we would’ve been confident coming into the locker room at halftime without scoring,” Rolfe said. “But with that goal, it’s ‘Here we go.’ We’re a great second-half team. We knew what we had to do.”

United remained on the front foot in the second half and should have taken the lead in the 75th, when Geiger whistled New England’s Scott Caldwell for a handball in the penalty area. Rolfe had been four-for-four from the spot this season. But he struck the left post on Wednesday. The Revs had new life and overtime loomed.

“I was actually pretty calm. I just kept believing I was going to get another chance and I was going to score,” Rolfe said. “There’s a split second after, maybe a minute or two, after the PK where it’s running through my head and I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s just one of those days. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I haven’t played 90 minutes in a long time. I don’t know if they’re going to take me out.’ I just cleared my head and tried to stay optimistic and kept making runs.”

It turned out not to be “one of those days.” Eight minutes later, D.C.’s Nick DeLeon sent a perfectly-weighted heel pass to Espíndola along the left edge of the penalty area. Neither Andrew Farrell nor Teal Bunbury ran with the Argentine, who cut the ball back toward the six-yard line. Rolfe read the play and was alone in front of the goal for an easy finish.

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“I’m so happy for Chris, because he’s been our best player this year and to miss that [penalty kick] and not redeem yourself, I know it had to be painful for him,” Olsen said. “He put his head down and kept working and we’re happy he found the winner.”

United had suffered playoff elimination on home soil in five consecutive postseasons dating back to 2005. Wednesday’s win, only its third in its past 10 games, sends D.C. to a home-and-home Eastern Conference semifinal series against either the Columbus Crew (if Toronto FC defeats the Montreal Impact on Thursday) or the New York Red Bulls (if Montreal wins). United won’t be favored against either opponent. But it won’t be a team that’s easy to look past, either. Despite fading down the stretch this year and hitting the playoffs in a rut, and despite falling behind far too frequently (no team yielded more goals in the first 15 minutes of a game than D.C.), its playoff intangibles are rising to the surface.

“We just kept plugging away,” Boswell said. “You can say what you want about the PK [calls] either way. But I think at the end of the day, we deserved to win that game and we did.”

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Rolfe said United has been talking all season about why it seems to respond best when down or desperate.

“We’re trying to figure it out. We can’t either,” he said.

But in that silence after Agudelo’s goal, they found another gear.

“They light a fire under us after they score and I think we all look around and we’re like, ‘All right, let’s go. Let’s do this.’ I don’t know why it’s not like that from the start,” Rolfe said. “We still don’t know what it it is. We’ve been talking about it all year. We do respond well. It worked again for us tonight.”

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