D.C. United’s return to the MLS playoffs was an uneven and often frantic affair marred by two own-goals, a missed penalty kick by the home side and a bit of petulance from one of United’s more reliable and even-keeled players.
At the end of a much anticipated evening, United was left with a 1-1 draw against Red Bull heading into the return leg on Wednesday night in Harrison, New Jersey. After Chris Pontius missed a first half penalty kick, United went ahead on an own goal from Roy Miller in the 61st minute. Red Bull responded just four minutes later but in controversial fashion as United returned the own-goal favor when Bill Hamid pulled a save into his own goal, albeit with a helpful bump from Red Bull defender Markus Holgersson.
United then had to hold on for the final twenty minutes when the normally stoic Andy Najar got himself sent off with a double-yellow card infraction. Najar had just received an admittedly soft yellow card from referee Jair Marrufo and showed his displeasure of the call by throwing the ball back at the ref. Marrufo had no choice but to produce a second yellow and now one of United’s biggest assets will miss the second leg on Wednesday night.
The setting for United’s first playoff appearance since 2007 brought back memories of old for the Black-and-Red. The “Blackout” was in full effect as 17,556 fans poured into RFK Stadium and the atmosphere was electric as United came flying out from the first whistle. Red Bull goalkeeper and former United draft pick Luis Robles was called into action immediately somehow managing to save a goal-bound shot from Chris Korb through a thicket of players just seconds into the match.
United continued to pour forward and were putting the Red Bull defense under tremendous pressure and seemed poised to take a well deserved lead in the 32nd minute. Branko Boskovic found himself one-v-one against Red Bull defender Conor Lade and when the midfielder cut to his right, Lade stuck his hand out and batted down the ball and Marrufo eventually pointed to the spot. Captain Chris Pontius stepped up and sent his low line drive to Robles’ right only to see the Red Bull keeper parry it away to safety.
United continued to push forward and almost took the lead late in the first half when a good combination play through the midfield left Boskovic with a header that went fractionally wide of the post and both teams headed to the locker room deadlocked at 0-0.
After the break Red Bull started to work itself into the match and nearly took the lead in the 60th minute but Bill Hamid came out to smother Joel Lindpere’s shot to keep the match at 0-0. Just one minute later United took the lead when Chris Korb’s cross got deep into the box heading for team mate Nick DeLeon. Defender Roy Miller, a halftime substitute for the ineffective Rafa Marquez, badly misplayed his clearance and roofed the ball into his own goal.
The lead lasted just four minutes however when a bit of controversy got Red Bull level at 1-1. A Thierry Henry corner kick was floated to the back post where Heath Pearce headed back into the goal box. Hamid had a bead on the ball and took a bump from Holgersson just as he was jumping to control the ball. Hamid lost his balance and inadvertently carried the ball backwards over the goal line. United players pursued Marrufo in protest but to no avail.
Najar’s immaturity in the 71st minute essentially killed any hope of United attacking to take the first leg advantage into Harrison but United did manage to carve out a few opportunities and also had another claim for a penalty when Lionard Pajoy was seemingly bundled to the ground by Pearce only to see Marrufo wave play on. Chris Pontius followed the play all the way into the goal box and had his rebound effort smothered by Robles to end United’s last effort to take a slim lead up north.
United will now most likely draft Robbie Russell into the lineup in place of the suspended Najar for the return leg on Wednesday. The move will undoubtedly have an impact on bets at sports betting sites like SportsBettingWorld.com. While a win would have been huge for United heading into the second leg, they are far from out of it as they have played some of their most determined defense on the road in the last eight weeks of the season. No doubt the task is made larger by the move of venues this week and United losing whatever slim home field advantage they may have had, but United has been playing these types of games for the last two months and don’t be surprised if United manage to make it through to the Eastern Conference finals and receive at least one more opportunity to play at RFK this season.