The franchise with four MLS Cups had gone through some trying lows before sealing its return to the league's upper echelon with its playoff-clinching win this weekend.
The "past success means nothing" mantra used in a promotional video last season made that point crystal clear. The new crop of D.C. players and coaches tried to build their own reputation and legacy to complement the heroes of the past, instead of trying match their MLS accomplishments.
Anyone inside the decaying gates of the sold-out, pressure-packed RFK Stadium for Saturday's 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew couldn't help but connect the past and present, though, on a truly vintage night in the rickety arena that saw D.C. clinch its first playoff berth in five years.
That includes head coach Ben Olsen, the only player on the D.C. roster when the team last made the postseason in 2007, who admitted to almost tumbling over the team bench in celebration following Lewis Neal's game-winning goal before completing a taboo act: Likening the win to past glory.
"That was great. In a packed house, it was like the old days," Olsen said after the game. "I don't like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt like the good old days here, and I'd like to keep that around."
One can't blame Olsen, who has endured through the championships and the struggles with D.C., for making that leap and tying together the two eras of D.C. soccer. He witnessed the last five down years as both a player and a coach, watching the team set the league record for offensive futility in 2010 and repeatedly fail off the field in the transfer market and on it with its play before the 2012 resurrection.
Sure, there are night-and-day contrasts between the current batch of United players and the past ones who littered national team rosters and were often a who's-who of MLS talent. The roster now is light on postseason experience and heavy on a blend of young talent, league veterans who know their roles and foreign signings who are getting the hang of the league.
Team ownership has even tilted in a different direction and had more of a presence, with recently-entrenched investor Jason Levien raising his arms in celebration as he made the trek from the owners' box into the bowels of RFK to personally take in Olsen's post-game press conference. There is one common bond between the two eras that anyone in the organization should be happy to recognize now that it has finally resurfaced, though: Success.
"It's been a long time coming, especially for some of the guys who have been around this club a long time," said Chris Pontius, who at 25 is the longest tenured player on D.C.'s roster and one of the elder statesmen in a rather young locker room.
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At long last, D.C. has a mixture of players who have been able to put it all together as a unit, even after captain and offensive catalyst Dwayne De Rosario went down for the season with a knee injury. The club embraced the challenge of playing without the reigning league MVP, going 5-0-1 in his absence.
"We've grown closer since Dwayne went down, and that's obviously not a negative toward Dwayne, it's just survival," Olsen said. "Everybody understood that we had to be a real team now, and we have to commit to each other and bail each other out, and that slowly over this six-week period has got us to the point we are today.
"Everyone's buying into their roles right now. It helps to win. You have to have the results to have people buy in, that's the reality. They've all come together as a group."
Detractors can point to a light schedule at the time of his injury, but winning October games in MLS is no easy feat regardless of opposition, and D.C. has managed to pull it off in its quest to return to prominence. With a win in the season finale, coupled with a rare Sporting Kansas City loss, D.C. would find itself atop the Eastern Conference table heading into the postseason. Either way, the chance to compete for another title is finally a reality again.
No matter how relieved the club is to be back in the postseason spotlight, though, just making the playoffs is not going to be sufficient for D.C. Not for a team that in 2009 boasted a "We Win Trophies" campaign ahead of its U.S. Open Cup final against the Seattle Sounders (wewintrophies.com still links to the club's online trophy case) and has a tangible case filled with some obscenely large, old school MLS and CONCACAF trophies on full display at the entrance to the team offices at RFK Stadium.
Standing on the winner's podium at the end of the season is still ultimately the standard in the nation's capital, regardless of whatever slogans have been adopted to distance the present club from its celebrated past. A team in the new MLS rarely goes from the depths D.C. was in to the top of the mountain in one swoop, and after an extended down period, this storied franchise is finally back on its way.
"(The players are) excited, but they want more," Olsen said. "I think this group still thinks they can do some things."
Just like in the old days.