Wicks shines as United keep rising

WASHINGTON -- Gritty trumped pretty for D.C. United on Saturday night, as the Black-and-Red climbed back into the MLS Eastern Conference lead with a hard-earned 2-1 win against the Chicago Fire in front of an animated crowd at RFK Stadium.With first place on the line, United were outshot and often outfought by a Fire squad that approached the game with an enterprising mentality that few visiting teams display at RFK. But the Black-and-Red squeaked through with a little help from lady luck -- and a massive hand from Josh Wicks.Wicks has consolidated his grip on D.C.'s goalkeeping duties with several strong displays in recent weeks, but Saturday night might rank as the biggest performance of his pro career. The big Californian patrolled the United box with authority and made five saves, the most pivotal of which was his block of a Brian McBride penalty kick in the 48th minute."Josh, not only with that save, had a really fantastic day today," said D.C. coach Tom Soehn afterwards. "He really established himself as a presence when balls came in the box, and came up with some really good plays."United spent the first few months of the season waiting for one of their three goalkeepers to seize the initiative and Wicks' current form has helped him win the trust of teammates and coaches alike."The past three games, he's been amazing. That's been the missing piece to our team and he's filled that spot well," noted D.C. rookie Chris Pontius.Despite his man-of-the-match heroics on Saturday, Wicks was quick to deflect praise onto his back line colleagues."My confidence is definitely growing more and more each game," said the former LA Galaxy shotstopper. "The defense played well tonight as well. Late in the game, they cleared two, three, four balls off the line. The battle with McBride -- I think they won tonight. He's a big guy, he gets his head on everything. [Bryan] Namoff, Dejan [Jakovic] and [Marc] Burch, all three of them played strong."While Wicks was the undisputed star of the show in a second half that featured incessant pressure from the Fire, the D.C. attack did its damage in the first 45 minutes.United were the beneficiaries of a controversial penalty kick call by referee Baldomero Toledo in the 24th minute when Pontius and Chicago goalkeeper Jon Busch collided in the Fire box after Pontius poked a first-time shot wide of the right post.But having been on the short end of several similar situations earlier this season, the home side felt the call was just desserts and RFK burst into life when Jaime Moreno buried the spot kick with aplomb."A lot of PKs have gone against us this year," said Pontius. "So for something to go our way -- it was a 50/50 ball and he did come out and hit me hard, so it could've gone both ways and it went our way, finally."His side's possession game was constantly disrupted by the buzzing pressure of the Chicago midfield, but Pontius -- playing striker on this occasion -- gamely chased after plenty of lost causes and four minutes before halftime his toil was rewarded when he drew another important foul, this time at the edge of the Fire box."I'm just trying to put myself in the right place at the right time and just work hard for my team," said Pontius.Christian Gomez used the resulting set piece to hit a gorgeous shot that swerved over the Chicago wall and past Busch for what would turn out to be the game winner."I saw that the 'keeper was moving to the other post, so I figured that there was a chance for me to get it over the wall," said Gomez. "I hit it and I was lucky that there was enough space and the ball went in."United have little time to savor their triumph as a demanding road trip looms. On Monday the Black-and-Red fly west to Seattle ahead of their inaugural meeting with Sounders FC on Wednesday night, after which they will proceed directly to Colorado -- where D.C. have not won in their last nine tries -- for a weekend tussle with the Rapids."It's obviously a relief to finish off a game and be in first place, but it's short-lived," said Soehn. "We have to turn around and go back to work. The sign of a good team is the ability to go and perform on the road. That's another test we'll have to do. Every season has major tests and this is one."