They were in a must-win game last night -- lose and they'd be eliminated from the playoffs. They were banged up, with key players unavailable or trying to play through injuries. They fell behind, and stayed that way until late in the game. But then, to the delight of the home crowd, a late rally that resulted in an improbable victory left them to live another day. I was delighted, even though I recognized that the team still needed to win its next game as well, just to stay alive!
And I was at the game, in the third row, a live spectator to a wonderful win.
Wait, you thought I was talking about the Red Sox win? Well, except for that last sentence, I might as well have been. Yes, in addition to the Sox win that no doubt anyone who cares about sports already knows about, D.C. United played last night -- with two games left in the season, they were one of six teams fighting for the last three playoff spots, and of those six teams, we were on the bottom of the heap. So while a tie technically wouldn't eliminate us, it essentially would have done so.
United has had a disastrous end to the season, having not won a regular season game in nearly two months. And it's been a very long season. In addition to now having played 28 of the 30 games in the regular season, it's had four games in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, three games in the SuperLiga, four games in the U.S. Open Cup, and four games (with two more to be played) in the CONCACAF Champions League -- in other words, it's had more than another half a season of games to play in between its league matches. And the MLS roster rules and salary cap affords very little depth to teams. So fatigue would be enough of a problem even if injuries hadn't hit them, leaving them without some of their key players when they were most needed.
Last night, we had a lineup that included two guys who were playing in the third division two months ago (in baseball terms, think AA), and a forward who was waived at the start of the season by another club and who hadn't scored in the regular season. Three of our five first-choice offensive players (not counting one who has missed all but 15 minutes of the season) started on the bench (or weren't even available), and a fourth was returning from injury to play his first game in a few weeks.
Our opponent ironically was New England, a team that had sown up a playoff spot already but who was looking for home field advantage in its first round game. New England had the run of play early, but soon United had turned it around, and began creating numerous chances. However, United wasn't able to get the goal it sorely needed, its best chance of the first half bouncing off the crossbar, and the half ended in a scoreless tie. In the second half, United again controlled the pace of the game, but a disastrous turnover led to an easy goal by New England in the 58th minute, and suddenly we were half an hour from the virtual end to our season.
However, a couple of minutes later, with nothing to lose, the team pulled a defender and brought in Jaime Moreno, the League's all-time leading scorer, whose injured knee had kept him out of the starting line-up. The decision to bring in Moreno paid almost immediate dividends, as he soon assisted on a goal by Francis Doe, that waived forward who hadn't scored all year. Doe scored after a pretty cut back helped him elude his defender and get a good shot. After that goal, Fred, who was thought lost for the season due to a hamstring injury, entered the game as United's last allowed substitute, and United's offense was roaring.
Amazingly enough, the go-ahead goal came again at the foot of Doe, and was scored in impressive fashion. The ball was flicked to him by Tino Quaranta, and Doe was able to out-muscle and out-quick last year's Defender of the Year to square up for a shot that he got over the goalie (you can view this goal and the rest of the match highlights here).
United was able to ride out the last part of the match to finish with a win in its last home match of the season. Its next challenge is to finish the season on the road against the best team in the league, the Columbus Crew. A win may be difficult, but at least there's still something for the team to play for.
Post Script: Starting at halftime, and throughout the second half, I was tracking the Red Sox-Rays game, seeing the deficit grow from 2-0 to 4-0 to 5-0, just glad that at least United had pulled off a win. I got home when it was still 5-0 to find a message from Dad, who is now a Rays fan, having lived in the Tampa area since before the team came into existence. I called him back, and explained where I had been. He wanted my support for the Rays, asking, couldn't I cheer for the underdog? I firmly responded by saying that I root for my team, no matter who they're playing. All the same, I congratulated him for his team, and shortly after I hung up, the deficit had grown to 7-0. I needed to go to bed -- I was exhausted, so after winding down a little more from the United match, turned in, even though I had seen that the Sox had cut the deficit to 7-4. It was only this morning that I learned that the Sox had scored four more runs in the last two innings to pull off the biggest comeback in post-season baseball in nearly 80 years.