United now sole leaders in the East after 3-0 win over Impact

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Late in D.C. United’s 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact on Saturday, the skies hanging over RFK Stadium finally opened. As the rain began to pour, the season-high 18,302 in attendance sang in full voice, basking both in Mother Nature’s brief relief from the oppressive heat and in their first-place club’s sixth-straight win at home.

United, yet again, had come through for them, thanks to a superb opening strike from a likely source, a well-taken goal from a not-so-likely one, and an icing-on-the-cake clincher. With the win, United (10-5-3) opened up a two-point lead on the New York Red Bulls (9-4-4) atop the Eastern Conference.

Although the visitors were hard to unlock in the first half, sitting back in a defensive shell, Chris Pontius‘ team-leading ninth goal of the season moments before halftime — an exquisite individual effort — forced Montreal (5-10-3) to look forward, paving the way for right back Robbie Russell and substitute Hamdi Salihi to put the game away after intermission.

“It’s always a killer getting a goal just before halftime,” Pontius said. “It’s a tough night to play, especially when they were sitting a lot of the game. We had to break them down. It was a little bit difficult at times, but that goal kind of allowed the game to open up.”

Both sides initially came out at a leisurely pace, seemingly pacing themselves as the temperature at kickoff lingered in the mid-90s.

But as the first half progressed, United found rhythm. In the 20th minute, Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush made a lunging save on Maicon Santos’ long-range blast. Minutes later, Impact rookie Calum Mallace nearly scored an own goal in his MLS debut, deflecting the ball off the post.

“It was pretty hot out there,” coach Ben Olsen said. “It was an important game to have the ball.”

Making his first start on the flank since March 18, Pontius struggled to make an impact early but slowly began pinching inside to find the game. And in first-half stoppage time, he showed how lethal he can be playing out of midfield.

Collecting a pass from Dwayne De Rosario just past midfield, Pontius shook a challenge from Sinisa Ubiparipovic and attacked the space in front of him, turning around Mallace with a pair of cuts at the top of the box before drilling a left-footed shot inside the far post.

“I didn’t even know I was going to do that,” Pontius said of the dual-cutback move. “Your brain is moving at a million miles an hour when you’re going at speed. And you just kind of have to make a split-second decision. Tonight, I made the right decision.”

The goal also marked the league-leading 10th assist of the season for De Rosario, the reigning Most Valuable Player.

United made it 2-0 five minutes after halftime as Branko Boskovic — fresh off signing a new contract this week — recorded his fourth assist off a free kick in five games, this time finding the head of Russell for the offseason acquisition’s first goal in a United uniform.

“It’s like a peach — just grab that,” Russell said. “He just hit a perfect ball, and it would have been a crime if I didn’t score.”

United capped the effort with a 91st-minute tally when Salihi slammed home a rebound off a Nick DeLeon shot, a deserved third goal for a D.C. squad that allowed a fatigued Montreal team playing its fourth game in 15 days to see little of the ball throughout the second half.

“Searching for that third goal was important,” Olsen said. “It’s not Montreal at their full strength, at a week’s rest, but no matter what, you have to take advantage of teams that are down on their luck. I think we did that today. We stepped on them.”

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