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D.C. United a hot team, and a hot ticket, thanks to turnaround

August 20, 2018

Bill Hamid hasn’t been back in Washington long, but he can already tell a lot has changed for D.C. United.

One concrete (and glass) symbol of that, of course, is Audi Field, the club’s new 20,000-seat stadium that opened July 14. Hamid, who rejoined his old team Aug. 8 on loan from a Danish club, still hasn’t checked out the entire building.

But it’s more than the stadium. It’s the whole vibe.

“I’ve had a lot of friends that usually go to Wizards games and Caps games and Nationals games and rarely ever come to D.C. United games,” Hamid said, a tough admission for a professional soccer goalkeeper to make. “Now my phone’s off the hook now. I’m getting calls here and there for tickets. It’s like a D.C. United game is the hottest ticket in town right now.”

They’ve acquired Wayne Rooney. They’ve opened the stadium. Most importantly, they’ve started winning again. The United are 4-0-1 in their last five games, 5-1-0 all-time at Audi Field and surprisingly one of Major League Soccer’s hottest teams.

Their latest victory, Sunday’s 2-0 win over New England Revolution, was their third straight. They earned nine standings points in eight days, which helped rocket them back into playoff contention.

“Certainly over the last two or three weeks we’ve outperformed and gotten better and shown the level we can play at,” Rooney said after Sunday’s game. “So it’s a consistency thing. We need to try to play with more consistency now, now to the end of the season.”

Rooney has appeared in every United match since his debut July 14. The club is 5-2-1 when he plays. After three matches, Rooney became the new team captain. But the English forward did not waltz in and solve all the team’s problems himself.

One of United’s major weaknesses in the first half of the season was defense, particularly blowing leads late in matches. The backs and defensive midfielders have since stepped up.

Coach Ben Olsen praised midfielders Russell Canouse and Jnior Moreno for their defensive work in the center of the pitch Sunday, United’s first shutout win since April.

“And then obviously, Bill (Hamid) coming back doesn’t hurt either,” Olsen said.

Hamid played a role in recruiting Rooney to D.C. before Hamid himself had returned.

The Annandale, Virginia, native was United’s keeper from 2009 to 2017, but he joined FC Midtjylland in Denmark’s top league in January. He was in Philadelphia in late May to suit up for the U.S. national team in a friendly match against Bolivia. On an off day, team executives asked Hamid to take a train to Washington while Rooney was visiting.

“He asked me a little bit about the culture, the city,” Hamid said. “So I got to tell him a little bit about what D.C.’s about, what the club is about. He was on board then and he’s definitely on board now. It’s very cool, the dynamic that he’s brought to this group.”

From March to July, while Audi Field was being finished, United played most of their matches on the road.

But as another scheduling consequence, they played fewer matches than most of the league.

That may serve to benefit United now although they are six points out of the final playoff spot held by the Montreal Impact, they also have four more games than Montreal remaining to catch up.

And nine of their last 12 regular-season matches come at Audi Field, where they are establishing a comfortable home-field advantage, which Olsen said has not been as easy as it may appear.

“The first time I came to the building, it didn’t feel like home,” Olsen said. “Each week that goes by I’ve said this before, as we start to create memories in this building and the fans start to take this place over, I think it’s a special place already in a short amount of time.”

Part of that is giving supporters a winning brand of soccer to cheer for, but they feed each other: better soccer leads to better atmosphere, better atmosphere leads to better performances at home.

For all the confidence United displays on the field right now, Olsen knows they can’t get too far ahead of themselves.

“I have a lot of faith in our captain and some of the players, that they understand that we don’t have any room for reading our own press or thinking that we’re better than we are,” the coach said. “We’ve been successful because everybody’s showing up and playing at a certain level, and if that dips for a second, any team in this league can beat you.”

As for now, “We understand we’re in a position right now where we can pat ourselves on the back for a day or two,” Olsen said. “But then it’s back to work.”

“We just gotta embrace it,” Hamid said. “This is a very special thing to be a part of right now.”

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