MLS Playoffs: Surging United sails into the postseason

After weeks and weeks becalmed and lost, followed by days and nights of roiling waters, the good ship D.C. United glided smoothly into a playoff berth on a perfect day for sailing.

RFK’s biggest MLS crowd (30,943) since the early MLS days of David Beckham – 2007 and 2008, to be precise – basked in bright sun and watched United sink a much pricier rig, New York City FC, by scoring three first-half goals and cruising to a 3-1 victory.

Patrick Mullins scored his eighth goal (in 14 appearances) since being traded by NYCFC and another former employee of New York soccer, ex-Red Bull Lloyd Sam, set up one of Mullins’ goal as well as another to run United’s win streak to four games and its unbeaten ride to six.

“No one player stands out in that first half, which is a beautiful thing,” said head coach Ben Olsen in his postgame comments. “It was a complete collective effort. We were high alert with every little play for the entire half.”

So rampant was the United attack that Jared Jeffrey, getting time in a midfield missing Marcelo Sarvas through injury, rang a shot off the crossbar as NYCFC scrambled to plug leaks that sprang up everywhere. D.C. caused danger on set plays as well, and defender Bobby Boswell marked his 350th MLS appearance by heading home Sam’s corner kick for the second goal.

NYCFC’s normally reliable midfielder Andoni Iraola gave D.C. its third goal by scuffing a return pass towards keeper Josh Saunders, who dove in a futile effort to claim the ball as Mullins poked it free. Rob Vincent stormed forward to drill Mullins’ feed into the net.

“It was a shock because I’ve trained with Andoni Iraola for a long time,” said Mullins of his former teammate. “I’ve never seen them make a bad pass, really ever. It rarely happens, and it was just a crazy sequence. The ball got to my feet and then I saw Rob and he finished it off.”

It was that kind of day for United, which struggled to score goals in the first half of the season but has hit at least two in its last eight games, during which it is 5-1-2. It has qualified a third straight year for the playoffs following the worst season (three wins) in league history.

Obviously, these two teams came out of the FIFA international break much differently. NYCFC filled the void with a trip to Mexico for a friendly against Necaxa played nine days before its trip to RFK. Whatever caused the malaise it wasn’t fatigue. In this case, the road team -- with a playoff spot long since clinched -- couldn’t match the urgency of a team not yet guaranteed a postseason slot.

“I think it’s just a lack of concentration,” said NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira. “I think in the first half we didn’t play, we didn’t turn up. But it’s not fair that we didn’t play. I think we just didn’t compete enough in the first half.”

In the second half, David Villa tucked away a penalty kick and United needed a pair of nice Bill Hamid saves to keep the visitor at bay. It can guarantee an RFK date in the Knockout Round by winning at Orlando City on Sunday; its nine home wins this season are second in the Eastern Conference only to the Red Bulls (13).

“I think sometimes when you get on these rolls you feel like you are inside your teammates' heads and you know what they are thinking now and you know what they are going to do,” said Mullins. “Of course, in this league you want that kind of mind melt to happen at this point of the year. I think we need to take next week extremely seriously and finish off the season strong and ensure that we can hopefully return back here.”
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