Credit: Courtesy D.C. United

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In a near-silent locker room, D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid slowly gets dressed before a herd of reporters gather around his chair. He speaks in a low hush, with a tinge of disbelief in his voice. About half an hour ago, Hamid was on the receiving end of some of the loudest cheers he’s heard in years.

A sold-out crowd of 20,600 at Audi Field chanted his name. “Hail Hamid! Hail, hail Hamid!” they screamed. United had fought back all season, going from last place in the Eastern Conference to clinching a home game in the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs against the Columbus Crew.

Fans jumped up and down on the bleachers. The stands shook a little harder. Beers flew in the air. But in the end, Columbus walked away with the victory after winning on penalty kicks.

Hamid sighs.

“Crowd [was] amazing,” he says. “The city really galvanized behind us. Throughout all this whole run, the city really supported us. Washington, D.C. really came out for us and gave us all that they got. Game by game, week by week. I’ve never seen an atmosphere so electric since 2012.”

A 27-year-old Annandale native, Hamid played with United from 2009 until 2017 and rejoined the team halfway through the season. His return coincided with the debut of the $500 million Audi Field and the arrival of Wayne Rooney.

United entered the match against Columbus on a 10-match unbeaten streak. Players believed, in some ways, that they were destined to win the championship this season.

“If you’re a professional and you’re not looking to win a championship, I don’t know what you’re doing it for,” says Hamid. “This isn’t easy to deal with … I really wanted a trophy in our inaugural season [at Audi Field]. We can build off this, but man, to lift a trophy at Audi Field’s inaugural season, that was all I was thinking about.”

No one said a word while walking to the locker room after the game. The loss, says midfielder Russell Canouse, will be tough to shake. The players will attempt to move on in a few days, but the disappointment will linger.

“I think a year, two, three years from now, I’ll think back to this, and I’ll be like, ‘This team could’ve gone further,’” he says. “It hurts losing in penalty kicks, especially with the effort that was put out on the field tonight.”

Credit: Courtesy D.C. United

At exactly 8 p.m. on Thursday evening at Buzzard Point, Luciano Acosta was introduced on the scoreboard. The fans responded with deafening cheers. Rooney appeared next, and fireworks exploded in the sky. Fans were still filing into their seats but by the time the match began at 8:08 p.m., the stadium was packed. The most die-hard of supporters in the fan section below the scoreboard chanted, waved flags, and banged on drums. The scene reminded some fans of RFK Stadium.

United struck first, on a header from Frédéric Brillant in the 21st minute. Minutes later, Columbus scored an equalizer. The boos were even louder than the cheers. Few opposing shirts were seen in the crowd.

“This is really impressive,” said BBC reporter Dan Johnson, attending his first MLS match. “This is more like English football than I expected.”

In the second half, United started to get into more of a rhythm. Nick DeLeon scored in the 116th minute to send the game into penalty kicks tied 2-2.

Later, coach Ben Olsen would tell reporters that he thought United was the better team after the first half.

“PKs are never a lot of fun,” Olsen says after the game. “PKs are for the birds—especially if you lose them.”

Adds Rooney, “It’s disappointing to lose on penalties … but can we be proud of what we’ve achieved in the last few months. I think today’s game, the crowd, the atmosphere … was fantastic and shows that the team’s come a long way.”

That’s the takeaway that Olsen wants everyone to have. Despite the loss, United has ushered in a new era, Olsen believes, and the team is eager to build upon the second half of this season.

Listen, this group. It was a hell of a run,” he says. “Don’t let this [loss] spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation for Audi Field, and kind of the next generation D.C. United and who we are and what we’re about. I’m extremely proud of them for doing that. I think they got this city interested again in soccer and our team. I very much look forward to getting back next year and working with this group and building and continuing playing this type of style, with this type of team at Audi Field next year.”