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D.C. United routs Chicago Fire to boost its MLS playoff hopes

D.C. United routs Chicago Fire to boost its MLS playoff hopes

D.C. United’s playoff outlook brightened Saturday night with a resounding 4-0 victory over Chicago that not only ended a three-game losing streak but pushed Wayne Rooney’s side ahead of the Fire for the last postseason berth in MLS’s Eastern Conference.

In urgent need of points entering the stretch run of the season, United roared to a three-goal lead in the first half. Christian Benteke scored for the first time in almost three months, 21-year-old Ted Ku-DiPietro continued his breakout campaign, and a bizarre own goal all but secured the outcome at Audi Field. Benteke added a goal in second-half stoppage time as United enjoyed its highest-scoring game of the year.

“It was a result we needed,” Rooney said. “We know it’s on us to keep putting on performances like we did tonight and win games. Where we are, tonight’s game will give us a lot of confidence.”

D.C. (9-12-6, 33 points) rose to ninth place, one point ahead of Chicago (8-11-8) and two behind No. 8 Montreal (11-14-2) with seven matches left. Three others are in contention as well.

Aside from climbing the standings — and improving its hopes of qualifying for the postseason for the first time in four years — United needed to play well after a series of uninspiring performances. From the start, it conducted itself with renewed energy and purpose orchestrated by new playmaker Gabriel Pirani. United also made strides at Audi Field, where, with a 4-4-4 record before Saturday, it was among the worst home teams in MLS.

In the buildup to the match, Rooney emphasized the importance of starting strong against an opponent that played Wednesday.

Benteke, United’s $4.25 million-per-year striker, had gone eight straight league matches and 11 overall without scoring. But in the ninth minute, Mateusz Klich delivered a spotless long ball out of midfield. Benteke chested it down in the box, cut back on defender Rafael Czichos, then pounded in an eight-yarder.

“When you don’t score for a few games, it can be frustrating,” he said. “But I was just thinking about doing the right thing. If you do the right thing, it leads to goals.”

Benteke was the facilitator in the 20th minute. With his back to the goal, he chested down Cristian Dájome’s long ball. With two defenders occupied, Benteke touched the ball into a gaping channel for the hard-running Ku-DiPietro to score his fifth of the season.

Captain Steven Birnbaum called Ku-DiPietro a “field-tilter for us. His runs in behind, his creativity in the box has been great for us.”

The forwards combined again in the 40th minute, with Benteke setting up Ku-DiPietro charging into the box. Chicago defender Carlos Terán barreled over Ku-DiPietro from behind, which would have prompted a penalty kick. But in the process of his misdeed, the falling Terán inadvertently struck the ball with each foot, and the latter touch resulted in an own goal.

United lost its way in the second half but wasn’t punished for it. In stoppage time, Benteke added his 10th of the year by easily depositing Chris Durkin’s cross.

D.C. goalkeeper Alex Bono made his second regular season start, replacing Tyler Miller, who is sidelined four to six weeks with a rib injury. Bono, an MLS veteran in his first year in Washington, sparkled in the 38th minute with a reaction save on Kei Kamara’s wicked strike and made a kick save on a 75th-minute deflection.

“Down the stretch here, we’ve got to pull off a lot of wins,” Bono said. “It was a good start for us and should give us confidence going into the last stretch to keep it going.”

Here’s what else to know about United’s victory:

Fletcher to Swansea City

Kristian Fletcher, an 18-year-old attacker in his first full pro season, was loaned to Swansea City in the second-flight English Championship until Dec. 31, people familiar with the deal said. (United and Swansea have the same owners.) The Bowie native and Landon School graduate appeared in 10 regular season matches for D.C., starting once and posting two assists.

Three international call-ups

Both of United’s starting outside backs, Éric Davis and Andy Najar, and reserve forward José Fajardo were summoned for international duty and will miss next Saturday’s home match against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Davis and Fajardo will join Panama for Concacaf Nations League matches against Martinique and Guatemala, while Najar will report to Honduras for Nations League games against Jamaica and Grenada.

MLS scheduled five games during this FIFA window, a period when first-division leagues around the world typically go on break.

Roster deadline nears

Citing salary cap issues, Rooney said United is unlikely to sign any free agents before the MLS roster deadline Sept. 13. (The transfer and trade window closed Aug. 2.)

Rooney wanted to reacquire midfielder Ravel Morrison, who had been training with the club lately. “He’s been brilliant,” Rooney said. The club left Morrison off the roster at the start of the year and bought out his $850,000 guaranteed contract this summer.

According to a person close to the situation, United also engaged in talks with Ghanaian World Cup forward Andre Ayew and Jesse Lingard, the former Manchester United winger who was seeking a long-term guaranteed contract.

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