By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — Last year, the New York Red Bulls traveled to RFK Stadium and handed D.C. United a 4-0 thumping, embarrassing their Atlantic Cup rivals in front of their hometown fans and a national TV audience.
United on Sunday reclaimed their home turf in emphatic fashion.
Riding a hat trick from revitalized midfielder-turned-forward Chris Pontius and another goal from rookie standout Nick DeLeon, United rolled to a 4-1 win over New York. With the rain-soaked triumph, D.C. moved to 3-2-3, extending its unbeaten streak to six games while leapfrogging the Red Bulls (3-3-1) for second place in the Eastern Conference.
"We talked about what they did to us last year here, losing 4-0," Pontius said. "We didn't forget about that."
For Pontius, who enjoyed a career year last season before breaking his leg in September, the stellar performance came after he spent much of the past month firmly planted on the bench, relegated to a reserve role as DeLeon thrived in his typical left-sided midfield position. As he put it, it was a "tough point."
But for the past three outings, coach Ben Olsen has used Pontius up top. After scoring the late winner as a substitute in a 2-1 victory at New England last weekend, Pontius earned a place back in the starting lineup for the two matches since.
And it's doubtful Olsen will be sitting him again anytime soon.
"He still doesn't know how to play forward, though," Olsen acknowledged. "That's the scary thing. He's still new at the position, and some of his movements can get a lot better. But three goals isn't too bad."
Pontius opened the scoring in the eighth minute, stripping New York captain Thierry Henry near midfield before dribbling at the Red Bulls back line and hammering a 20-yard shot past goalkeeper Ryan Meara.
The fourth-year player added his second tally in the 32nd minute, though strike partner Maicon Santos lent a notable supporting hand. The burly Brazilian evaded a triple team of Red Bulls defenders, walking the tightrope on the end line before sending a ball across the goalmouth.
As New York left back Connor Lade misplayed the service, Pontius was on the spot to clean up the mess from close range.
"Pontius was unbelievable," midfielder Danny Cruz said. "These last few games, him up top, he's doing all the little things right."
United continued the flurry four minutes later. Former Red Bull Dwayne De Rosario's centering feed found DeLeon, whose shot from the center of the 18-yard box deflected off New York defender Markus Holgersson and trickled in.
DeLeon, an early Rookie of the Year favorite, has three goals and three assists in seven games played.
"Last game, we had a slow start," DeLeon said, referring to a disappointing 1-1 draw with Montreal on Wednesday. "And that's what we preached really hard for this game. You can't afford to have that start. So we came out banging."
When Pontius wrapped up his hat trick in the 69th minute, he did so by evading a lazy challenge from Holgersson before rounding Meara and slotting a shot home.
There was nightmare defending throughout from the Red Bulls, who were playing without the injured trio of left back Roy Miller, centerback Wilman Conde and holding midfielder Teemu Tainio, as well as suspended defender-midfielder Rafa Marquez.
After Henry got New York on the board with his league-leading eighth goal of the season — an exquisite 72nd-minute free kick — the Frenchman simply walked back toward midfield with his head hanging low.
On this night, there was nothing worth celebrating for New York. This round of the Atlantic Cup belonged to D.C.
"New York came here with a bit of a watered-down team, and it showed at times," Olsen said. "We've got to take the win with a grain of salt. But I feel like we took advantage of that. That's what you have to do."