With a postseason berth secured a day earlier through other results, D.C. United arrived at Audi Field on Sunday aiming to enhance its Eastern Conference position and continue a late-season rebirth.
The defensive effort had been strong of late, but would the sluggish attack come around in time for the MLS playoffs?
Performing with refreshing style in the first half and typical resolve and efficiency in the second, United gave a well-rounded performance and defeated the Seattle Sounders, 2-0, before a rowdy audience of 18,489.
The third consecutive shutout victory lifted United (13-10-9, 48 points) into fourth place, which, if the season were to end now, would come with home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
With two weeks left, United is a step ahead of the New York Red Bulls (14-13-5, 47 points) and Toronto FC (12-10-10, 46). New York City FC (16-5-10, 58), Atlanta (17-11-3, 54) and Philadelphia (15-9-7, 52) sit atop the table.
United will visit the Red Bulls next Sunday before closing against league-worst Cincinnati on Oct. 6 in Washington.
“We were talking about [home field] all day — it’s where we need to be and where we want to go,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “The only way to do that is through New York and [Cincinnati]. If we get the right points here, we put ourselves in a good spot.”
Lucas Rodríguez scored early in the match and Frédéric Brillant added a goal early in the second half as United ended a string of six consecutive defeats and an eight-game winless rut against the Sounders. The previous victory came in 2011 at RFK Stadium.
“We have to do more, to want more for the club and for yourself,” Brillant said. “Right now, we are good but we have nothing. We have to keep going.”
Brillant and his fellow defenders were organized and compact, blocking shots and limiting Seattle’s clear opportunities. And after conceding ball possession and numerous shots in the previous two matches, United was crisp and dangerous in the attack.
“That has been difficult for us to put together, that full performance,” Olsen said. “The last couple weeks we’ve put together good halves. … To sustain that is going to be critical if we are going to become a team that can raise silverware.”
The Sounders (14-10-8) showed fatigue in their third game in a week. They were also shorthanded: Playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro (seven goals, 12 assists) was scratched with a back injury, and starting center back Xavier Arreaga served a red-card suspension.
United forward Ola Kamara (three goals in four matches) continued recovering from a hamstring ailment and was not in uniform.
Olsen did not make any changes to the lineup: With the playoffs approaching, he has settled on his first-choice personnel and formation. Injuries and suspensions will alter those plans, of course.
Wayne Rooney, Paul Arriola, Felipe Martins and Russell Canouse entered at the yellow-card threshold, and by avoiding a caution Sunday, they remain eligible next Sunday.
United buzzed with activity from the start, a promising sign from a unit that has prioritized defense.
The Sounders lacked a hub without Lodeiro, but they did threaten first as Brad Smith cruised in alone on the left side and smashed a bid off the crossbar. Moments later, Rooney did the same from 18 yards.
In the 14th minute, United went ahead. Ulises Segura’s deflected cross floated to Rodríguez at the top of the penalty area. The Argentine chested it down and lashed a right-footed shot past diving goalkeeper Stefan Frei and into the lower left corner for his sixth goal of the year.
Frei prevented further damage, making a fine reflex save on Arriola’s rasping drive. United brimmed with confidence in the attack, moving the ball quickly through one-touch passes and stretching Seattle’s defense by switching the point of attack.
It was as snappy as United had performed in quite some time.
Just before intermission, Rooney rattled the crossbar again, this time on a free kick from several yards beyond the side of the penalty area.
The second goal came on a set piece nine minutes after the break. Instead of shooting high, Rooney went low, thumping a free kick into the mix. Partially screening Frei, Segura raised his right foot and let the ball race past him. The on-rushing Brillant met it for an easy tap-in and his fourth goal in 113 MLS matches.
“I just tried to put the ball into a dangerous position and make it difficult for the keeper,” Rooney said. Segura “had a great dummy, and then it was either going to go straight in or Fred was going to knock it in.”
Brillant said he did not expect Rooney to deliver the ball low, but he added, “We knew we have to put the presence very close to the goal.”
Segura’s effort to end any lingering suspense clanged off the far post in the 83rd minute.
With United playing keep-away in the dying moments, the crowd chanted “Ole!” with each pass.
“It gives us a little confidence that offensively we are a better team than people give us credit for,” Olsen said. “And to continue with not giving up a goal is still the foundation of success for us.”
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