Before United's 2018 season began, it was easy for fans to look at the schedule and be excited about the month of July given the much-anticipated inaugural match at Audi Field on July 14. Now that August has arrived, and the Black-and-Red played to a 2-2-1 record during the month of July that included two wins in their first three matches at Audi Field, there’s even more reason for optimism in regard to United's growing momentum down the stretch of the season.
An improbable game-winning goal against Colorado on July 28 capped off an eventful month of July for the Black-and-Red that included the opening of their new stadium, the arrival of an international star, players returning from injury, and the team playing with heightened cohesion.
In their first match of July, an Independence Day meeting with the LA Galaxy, United found themselves trailing 2-0 after conceding two goals in 25 minutes. Needing a spark to ignite the team, United showed their resolve, and in the 26th minute Luciano Acosta fed Zoltán Stieber into the box for a left footed finish. The Black-and-Red’s immediate answer was the precursor for a late equalizer from Darren Mattocks, in the 85th minute, to steal a hard-fought point on the road.
Following the draw in LA, attention turned to what would be one of the most monumental nights for soccer in the history of the nation’s capital. Audi Field’s opening and Wayne Rooney’s MLS debut coincided to make for a historical evening for the Black-and-Red and the District.
The anticipation of the inaugural match gave way to an onslaught of goals for the home team in front of a sellout crowd. Yamil Asad’s goal in the 27th minute went down in the record books as the first goal in Audi Field history, and later the Argentine won MLS' AT&T Goal of the Week for the beautiful strike. Paul Arriola sent the home crowd in to a frenzy with his brace, earning himself Man of the Match honors and securing an emphatic 3-1 win for United.
The night was made even more special with a world-class player's Major League Soccer debut. When Wayne Rooney entered the match as a 58th-minute substitute, he was ushered on to the pitch by a rousing applause and quickly influenced the game with his work rate and skill on the ball. The forward was a difference maker in his debut, serving as a key component on Arriola’s two goals and recording his first MLS assist in the Black-and-Red’s win.
"This is one of the great nights in D.C. United history, and we’ve had some good ones,” head coach Ben Olsen said after the historic win.
Competitive matches against Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls, two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference standings, provided flashes of encouraging signs despite the final results. Before the calendar turned to August, a home match against the Colorado Rapids yielded Rooney’s first goal with D.C. United and an unlikely win in the waning minutes of the match for another pivotal three points.
Over the course of July, the Black-and-Red also found more depth as a number of players returned from injury. Russell Canouse, a defensive midfielder expected to be a key contributor to the attack before the season started, returned to the lineup last month and was named to the MLS Team of the Week after the Rapids game and what was his first start of 2018. Kofi Opare also made his first start of 2018 against Colorado, and adds a steadying presence to the United back line following his standout 2017 campaign.
Additionally, Ulises Segura and Júnior Moreno returned to health, and Segura's tough-angle shot led to the game-winning own goal against Colorado on the 28th. While he has yet to make an appearance since March 24, defender Chris Odoi-Atsem was also recently removed from the injury report list.
With an influx of players returning to availability and the arrival of Rooney, the Black-and-Red have focused on sharpening their cohesion to produce results. Offensively, the team has consistently found success on the road and at Audi Field. In July alone, Paul Arriola recorded his first career MLS brace, Yamil Asad became United's leading scorer, Luciano Acosta notched his seventh and eighth assists on the season, and Wayne Rooney tallied his first career MLS goal and assist.
“It's nice when you're creating chances because we know when we keep creating chances then we all score more goals,” Rooney said about United's offensive cohesion. “I think there are really positive signs.”
Another key component to the recent form of United is the second-half resiliency the squad has shown. The final 45 minutes of matches were a source of frustration early in the season as the team conceded late goals that proved to be the difference in points accumulated. Mattocks' late goal against the Galaxy and United’s late push after conceding an equalizer to Colorado are signs of the team's increased sense of toughness and discipline, as the Black-and-Red are giving up fewer late-game goals and instead scoring more in the closing moments of matches.
“For us to have that kind of mentality where we come back from the other team scoring a late goal, which has been our Achilles heel all year, to turn that around and get a winner, I think psychologically this was a huge boost for the team right now,” head coach Ben Olsen said after the win over Colorado.
Now the Black-and-Red hope July will prove to be a turning point in the 2018 season. Led by their recently-appointed captain, Rooney, United have the ability to make a late second-half push with 12 games still to be played at Audi Field and 15 total matches to go. With more games in hand than the rest of the league, significant home-field advantage for the remainder of the season, and improved form as of late, the Black-and-Red are determined to peak right at the most important time of the season.
"We have played four games less than Montreal and less games than other teams. We have some games in hand and if we maximize our points or get close to that at home then we’ll be in good shape to put ourselves in the mix," Olsen said. "We just need to keep moving forward."