Audi Field
Audi Field Credit: KELYN SOONG

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Debra Crowe travels down from Philadelphia for every D.C. United home game. The 34-year-old has been a season ticket holder for the past six seasons and suffered with the rest of the fans through some of the lowest moments in the franchise’s history. For years, the product on the field mirrored the dilapidated conditions of its longtime home, RFK Stadium. In 2013, United won only three games. The team qualified for the Major League Soccer Cup playoffs from 2014 to 2016, before regressing in last year’s 20-loss season.

When D.C. United signed Wayne Rooney in July in conjunction with the debut of its new $500 million stadium, Audi Field, the front office promised a bright future of exciting soccer and a turnaround of fortune. Crowe had her doubts.

“I was expecting something similar to the last few years,” she says, “just falling short.”

But the last three months have given her hope that things really are different. On a windy Sunday afternoon in Southwest, Crowe has a front row seat to the unexpected. At the final whistle, people around her hop up and down and scream, as the words, “WE WIN” light up the scoreboard behind her. Players on the field embrace. Midfielder Luciano Acosta collapses to the ground and lays there for several seconds, overwhelmed by the occasion. Eventually the team makes it over to Crowe and the fan group section to give their thanks. An announced attendance of 20,249 people stand and cheer.

With a 3-1 victory over New York City FC, D.C. United is officially back in the playoffs after spending months near the bottom of the league.

“No, I didn’t think we’d be potentially clinching at home,” Crowe says during halftime. “But am I glad? Yes, absolutely.”

The roar from the crowd anytime the home team scores in Buzzard Point can be heard blocks away. And in the eighth minute on this chilly fall Sunday, Rooney gives the fans something to cheer about. Acostaavoids several defenders near New York’s goal and passes to Rooney, who taps the ball past the goaltender.

Sixteen minutes later, it’s Acosta’s turn: The 5-foot-3 Argentine scores from beyond the penalty box to give the team a 2-0 lead. Rooney would add another goal in the 74th minute from a penalty kick for United’s final goal and his 12th of the season.

In the victorious locker room shortly after the match, both players spend as much time answering questions about the other as they do talking about themselves.

“I think we just enjoy playing with each other. We both play to each other’s strength,” says Rooney. “It’s great to play with players like that because they’re always going to create your chances and create chances themselves.”

Says Acosta, through a translator: “Honestly, I don’t have to say anything about it. It shows itself on the field how well we connect. I’ve said it many times before: He’s a great player, very easy player to play with. He makes everything easier, makes us better as a team.”

In previous seasons, the team relied too heavily on the 24-year-old Acosta, coach Ben Olsen admits during his post-game press conference. United needed Acosta, who goes by the nickname “Lucho,” to play well since he arrived in 2016. There was no Plan B.

“We’ve always said behind the curtains that we’re asking too much of this kid. We put too much pressure or too much of a burden on this kid,” says Olsen. “Before Wayne, before some of the bolstering of this roster, it was up to him. If he was playing at a high level, we would play at a high level. If he wasn’t, we tended to lose those games.”

Acosta has tallied 10 goals this season, nine of which have come since Rooney’s arrival from Everton of the English Premier League. He also has 17 assists. Acosta’s offense—the dazzling goals and footwork are the most visible, but Rooney has made Acosta’s life easier in all facets of the game. He’s able to play more freely. And in turn, his defense has improved.

“I think Wayne has definitely taken a little of the pressure off of him,” Olsen says. “Obviously, the offensive stuff gets noticed, but from our end, from the staff’s end, his ability to now switch when the ball turns over and understand how crucial he is to this defensive puzzle and how we become a better team through turning balls over and being good transition defense. His realization [that] that’s going to help him and his numbers, that’s been the most impressive thing to me.”

Wayne Rooney talking to reporters Credit: KELYN SOONG

When Rooney joined the club in July, D.C. United sat in last place in the Eastern Conference. Olsen would field questions about his job security after losses. The debut of Audi Field offered a glimmer of hope, as did a home game-heavy second half of the season, but several incidents, like the since-settled feud between the club and two of its supporter groups, and an accident that left a staff member with a concussion, dampened the celebrations.

Now the team is in the playoffs with one more game to go. During the post-match press conference, Olsen is asked if his team’s rapid turnaround has exceeded his expectations. He pauses for a few seconds, bobbing his head side to side, and smirks. “Maybe a bit,” he finally offers.

A win against Chicago Fire on Oct. 28 would bump the team up to fourth place in the Eastern Conference and give it the chance to a host a first-round playoff game. If that happens, expect Crowe to make the two-hour train ride down to Audi Field.

“No one was talking about us, and now everyone can’t stop talking about us,” says midfielder Paul Arriola. “It’s a good feeling to be able to win and I think the work that we have put in has paid off. But we’re not done yet.”