With Christian Benteke onboard, D.C. United surprises New York City FC


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HARRISON, N.J. — Christian Benteke is no savior. There is, after all, nothing to save of this D.C. United season, which will end in 5½ weeks without an MLS playoff berth for the third consecutive fall.

But the Belgian striker, fresh off 10 years in the Premier League, has joined D.C. United’s renovation project, which will carry into a busy winter of roster changes.

After waiting weeks for a work visa — then flying directly to New York from London on Tuesday to join his new club — Benteke made his United debut Wednesday by entering in the 73rd minute of a surprise 2-1 victory over reigning champion New York City FC at Red Bull Arena.

“We are delighted to have him,” Coach Wayne Rooney said. “I think he will make a difference for us.”

United’s prized summer signing will, in a full season, become the highest-paid player in club history, a yet-to-be-disclosed figure that will surpass Rooney’s contract when he played for United in 2018 and 2019.

Despite the whirlwind 24 hours of travel and acclimation, Benteke said that “when you’re excited, when you look forward to a new challenge, you don’t think about being tired from a flight. You just want to play games.”

He replaced Ola Kamara, who had given United the lead in the first half. After NYC quickly tied it, United went back ahead early in the second half on captain Steven Birnbaum’s header.

“He’s going to work, and he’s going to hold up [the ball],” Birnbaum said of Benteke. “Obviously he’s a threat in front of goal. We’re excited to build around him and get this going.”

In his brief appearance, Benteke had minor influence as NYC pressed for a late equalizer and enjoyed dangerous possession. Nonetheless, United (7-17-4) ended a four-game losing streak and a six-match winless rut with its second victory in 12 outings.

Rooney had hoped to pair Benteke with all-star Taxi Fountas, but the Greek forward suffered a concussion Sunday in Atlanta. If Fountas clears protocols, the duo might start together — or at least play at the same time — Sunday night against the Colorado Rapids at Audi Field.

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For the second consecutive match, United scored first. For the second consecutive match, United conceded the equalizer almost right away.

Kamara provided the lead in the 24th minute. Chris Durkin did well to break free on the left side before crossing into the six-yard box, where Kamara didn’t have a defender within yards of him. He tapped it in for his ninth goal.

On Sunday, Atlanta needed two minutes to respond. On Wednesday, NYC (13-9-6) took three. Malte Amundsen crossed to Brazilian forward Héber for a 13-yard one-timer that took a deflection en route to the target and zipped past goalkeeper David Ochoa.

D.C. regained the lead in the 57th minute. In front of the United bench, Martín Rodríguez launched a long free kick to the back side of the box. Birnbaum’s eight-yard header came off goalkeeper Sean Johnson’s hand and settled into the far corner for his second goal.

With a small crowd giving off a preseason vibe, United carried itself like a home team hungry for another goal rather than an away side content with a lead. NYC turned to its bench, inserting playmaker Maxi Moralez, who usually starts.

United’s defense held firm, and in stoppage time, Ochoa made a spectacular soaring save on Gedion Zelalem’s bid from distance.

“Unbelievable,” Birnbaum said.

“It’s actually really good when Wayne Rooney tells you that it was a good save,” Ochoa said.

Rooney was pleased with the outcome — but not too pleased.

“Sometimes I can look a bit miserable after winning games because winning one game of football is not good enough,” he said. “I’m trying to change the mentality in there. We have to go again Sunday.”

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

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Following his pledge to integrate young players, Rooney included new homegrown signings Kristian Fletcher, 17, and Matai Akinmboni, 15, on the game-day roster. Fletcher, The Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year last fall from Landon School, entered in the 88th minute. Both will continue playing for second-division Loudoun United.

“I’m a coach who believes in young players,” Rooney said, “and giving players a chance.”

Akinmboni, who will turn 16 in October, is a 6-foot-3 center back from the club’s youth academy. Fletcher, an attacker, played youth soccer at Bethesda Soccer Club and won’t officially join the first team until January. On Wednesday, he was on loan from Loudoun.

Midfielder Moses Nyeman, 18, became the third homegrown to transfer overseas this year when United struck a deal with Beveren in Belgium’s second division. Terms weren’t disclosed, but two people familiar with the deal said United received $350,000 and 25 percent of any future transfer.

Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg in Germany) and Griffin Yow (Westerlo in Belgium) also have gone abroad.

United is in preliminary talks with Ochoa’s agent about a long-term contract, three people close to the situation said. Ochoa, who has received interest from European clubs, is in the last year of his MLS deal. If he were to go abroad, United would retain his MLS rights.



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