WASHINGTON – Midfielder Felipe Martins felt the burden D.C. United was carrying the moment he entered his first practice on Aug. 9. The Black-and-Red won once the entire month of July and were on a three-game winless streak heading to their matchup between the LA Galaxy.
Added into the pressure was the announcement that captain Wayne Rooney was departing the club at the end of the season.
Preparing for his first game since being traded from the Vancouver Whitecaps on Aug. 6, Martins wanted to inject energy to United at its lowest moment. Fast forward to Aug. 11, the Brazilian dropped to his knees and clenched his fists in success.
“Today was all about mentality,” Martins said. “We were tuned in for 90-plus minutes and that is what we have to be about and we have to be tough to play against.”
Through all the drama surrounding them, D.C. United found success. In front of a sellout crowd of 20,006, the Black-and-Red pulled out a gusty, defensive performance against one of the league’s best offenses to complete a 2-1 win.
The win comes after Head Coach Ben Olsen did not make a substitution the entire game, instead sticking with a defensive starting 11 that featured five changes from their home loss on Aug. 4 against the Philadelphia Union.
United (10-9-7) were missing four players, including Rooney (illness). Meanwhile, Luciano Acosta, the team’s playmaking midfielder, did not start nor come in as a substitute in the second half in what Olsen called “a coach’s decision.” The Argentine has not scored since June 1.
“The effort and commitment from that group was terrific today; as good of a group effect that we have had all year,” Olsen said. “Sometimes, that is enough and tonight, it saw us through.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic tested D.C.’s defense early and often as he outmuscled players to find open looks on goal. In the 25th minute, the Swedish striker almost gave the visitors an early lead when he connected with a header attempt on goal. However, defender Steve Birnbaum stepped in front of the shot, sending the ball out of bounce.
Meanwhile, United started not having a shot on goal in the opening 25 minutes. After Ibrahimović’s attempt, the home side responded with a counterattack. Midfielder Ulises Segura sent a chip pass over the Galaxy backline that landed in front of Paul Arriola. The Chula Vista, California native slotted a right-footed shot past David Bingham to give United a one-goal lead.
Arriola, who played in the playmaker role in midfield instead of on the wing, continued to be a nuisance with his quick runs into the Galaxy territory for the whole match.
“You put a player like myself in a position that requires a lot of work, there are no excuses or complaints from me,” Arriola said. “I am going to do it. It was a difficult game; there was a lot of running and time without the ball but we made it worth it.”
The Galaxy (12-1-11) looked poised to tie the game when Uriel Antuna’s quick turn-and-shoot play was narrowly saved by goalkeeper Bill Hamid (DeMatha Catholic High School) before halftime. However, three minutes into the second half, midfielder Favio Álvarez connected on a low-driven shot to the near post for the equalizer to tie the game.
United’s defense continued to try and keep Ibrahimovic at bay, who finished with 14 shots in one game, a new league record. One of those attempts was a volleyed strike off a free kick that Hamid once again saved by sticking out his left hand at the final moment. Despite all his attempts, Ibrahimovic’s effectiveness was limited thanks to Birnbaum and defender Jalen Robinson.
In the 73rd minute, United powered forward with another counterattack, starting with Segura firing a shot at goal. While Bingham punched the ball away from his net, it landed in front of a running Arriola, who fired a second shot.
The Galaxy goalkeeper made a second stop but was not able to keep it away from the path of Rodriguez, who easily slid the ball into the goal to give D.C. a one-goal advantage. Without making a substitution, United scrapped by with the win despite being outshot 29-12.
“We had just come off a really hard loss and this was our revenge game,” Rodriguez said. “We knew it was going to be a hard game against them but at the end of the day, we needed our players to step up so we can move forward.”
“We were unlucky today,” Ibrahimovic said. “We were the better team by far but they won so congrats to them.”
Olsen credited his team’s selflessness to play a grittier defensive style with more energy. With several new additions coming at the end of the transfer window and the return of missing players, United’s future looks bright, the head coach said.
“We rode our luck. The box defending was gutsy all night long,” Olsen said. “Bodies were flying everywhere throughout the night. It was just a lot of little plays that I think made the difference tonight.”