WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was the sort of evening that once was commonplace, back when the road to MLS Cup inevitably included a turn onto East Capitol Street. But as recently as eight months ago, it would have seemed almost inconceivable to imagine the scene on Saturday night, when D.C. United clinched first place in the Eastern Conference before a black-clad, sell-out crowd at RFK Stadium.
United’s 2013 season was one of historic ineptitude. Its three wins set an MLS record — the bad kind — and not a single player on its roster tallied more than three league goals. D.C.’s average attendance of 13,646 was the worst in the club’s 18-year history and the third-lowest in MLS, eclipsed only by the San Jose Earthquakes, whose stadium didn't seat that many, and dead-club-walking Chivas USA.
Those numbers mattered on multiple levels. United’s ownership group, led by majority shareholder Erick Thohir and managing general partner Jason Levien, have been pushing hard for a new stadium in the District. Convincing citizens and the city council that the club was a civic asset was going to be tougher as the losses and unsold tickets piled up.
“No matter what happened last year or whatever, this club is the club with the most history in this league,” United midfielder Davy Arnaud told SI.com following Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire. “This club needs to be back in this spot. There needs to be some pride in this club.”
Levien maintained his faith in coach Ben Olsen and GM Dave Kasper over the winter despite having every excuse to cut them loose. Olsen, a fan favorite, kept the locker room united despite a miserable season, and D.C. won the U.S. Open Cup against the odds. There was something with which to work. So Kasper and his coach focused on their strengths as they set out to rebuild the club.
While United’s foreign signings have been poor in recent years, its drafting and domestic talent identification remained relatively good. So D.C. went with what it knew: experienced MLS players who understood how to win. It selected defenders Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell and forward Fabián Espíndola in December’s re-entry draft. No club had ever used the league’s distribution mechanism for discarded veterans so ambitiously. It acquired Arnaud and Chris Rolfe via trades that now look like steals, plucked rookie of the year candidate Steve Birnbaum in February’s draft and signed U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson to a Designated Player deal that sent a message of commitment to a frustrated fan base.
Each of them has made significant contributions to D.C.’s 17-9-7 season and its first first-place finish in seven years, which also seals a spot in the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. Espíndola was an MVP candidate earlier this season and now has 10 goals and nine assists. Rolfe, now injured, has six and six. Arnaud, 34, runs like a player 10 years younger and has joined Perry Kitchen to form MLS’ most unheralded central midfield partnership. Boswell and Franklin were All-Stars. Johnson, who’s form has risen and dipped through injury and the disappointment of failing to make the World Cup roster, set up Chris Pontius’ first-half opener on Saturday with an inch-perfect cross from the right wing. He then scored United’s second with a blistering shot from 15 yards.
If D.C. wins its regular season finale in Montreal, it will sextuple its 2013 win total. It’s arguably one of the most significant reversals of fortune in North American sports history.
“I think enough of us have been a part of really successful groups and have been part of groups that maybe underachieved,” Arnaud said. “So you understand what the formula is and what it takes. I think the front office did a great job of putting together a group of guys who get it and with a great young core already here, it’s been pretty good.”
Considering last year’s record and the realities of an ownership group waiting on a resolution to the stadium pursuit before it breaks the piggy bank, Olsen’s goal in 2014 was to make the playoffs. First place or fifth, it didn’t matter. Just get in. Now, however, those goals have evolved. With reigning champion Sporting Kansas City continuing to slide, D.C. suddenly seems a reasonable bet to make the MLS Cup final.
“I think [expectations] have grown as the point totals grew," Olsen said. "It’s pretty simple. As we started to win and pick up points and move up the table and get results against tough teams – be a consistent, competitive team that knew how to get results – that’s when I think people started taking notice. Now, you know how this goes. It’s, ‘We just won the East, now you have to win the MLS Cup.’ That’s the next logical expectation to us, at least. So, our expectation of ourselves now is we need to go win the MLS Cup. What else could we want?”
What they had, at least for a night, was something to celebrate. After the whistle, fireworks were set off above the venerable but decrepit 53-year-old stadium. The players walked to the far sideline to celebrate with the supporters groups, who last year seemed to go it alone but on Saturday were part of a crowd numbering more than 20,000. It was February fantasy turned into October reality.
“It’s an unfortunate part of it. I’m already on to next week," said Olsen, who will send a reserve squad to Panama for United’s 2014-15 CCL group stage finale on Tuesday. "Tonight’s a special night though for our club and our players. They’ve earned this. I told them to make sure they go out and reward themselves and reward the fans for the season they’ve had.”