In the world of soccer, conventional wisdom says a draw at home is far from ideal. When it comes to a two-game, total-goals series, in fact, the result can be downright disheartening.
But under such circumstances, the mood inside the home locker room at RFK Stadium on Saturday was surprisingly upbeat. While the 1-1 tie between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls was a disappointment, Ben Olsen still took away a valuable lesson.
"I've learned they're a beatable team," the United coach said. "Here or there, we can beat this team. And there is a great opportunity for us to go to New York and try to do that."
The Eastern Conference semifinal series shifts to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., on Wednesday for the second leg. If the overall score remains tied after 90 minutes, the teams will play two 15-minute overtime periods and, if necessary, go to penalty kicks.
For stretches Saturday, it seemed as if United were destined to take a lead into Game 2 against an opponent that triples their payroll.
Perry Kitchen controlled the midfield, winning challenges and spraying the ball all over the pitch. Winger Chris Pontius repeatedly got the better of his marker, Red Bulls rookie Connor Lade. And New York's vaunted attack, led by MVP candidate Thierry Henry, couldn't get much going.
"I always felt good about how we match up against them, and tonight just proved it right," Pontius said. "We've got to match their intensity up there, and play offensively like we did down here."
United, though, ultimately were undone Saturday by a series of lapses. Pontius missed a penalty kick. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid bobbled a header for an own goal, appealing for a foul that never came. Right back Andy Najar got tossed, receiving a second yellow card when he protested the first by hurling the ball at referee Jair Marrufo.
Because of those mishaps, D.C. must find a way to dispatch of New York away from home if the club wants to secure passage to the conference final.
"We're definitely looking forward to an away atmosphere," Kitchen said. "It might be a little tougher with our backs against the wall, but it's nothing we can't handle."
Veteran Robbie Russell is the likely replacement for Najar, who will serve at least a one-game suspension. Acquired in the offseason to add experience to United's back line, Russell, 33, started 16 games before suffering a foot injury in July. While he returned to make three appearances off the bench during the stretch run, he couldn't shake Najar's grasp on the starting job.
Another option would be to return first-choice left back Daniel Woolard to the lineup and slide Chris Korb to the right side. That, however, seems unlikely considering Woolard (concussion) only this past week was upgraded to probable after being sidelined since early August.
"[Najar] has been a big piece of our defense," center back Dejan Jakovic said. "But we're a deep team, and I'm sure we're going to find a way to cover that spot."
Although No. 2-seeded United originally were slated to host the decisive second match, the third-place Red Bulls got that edge when the clubs decided last week to swap home playoff dates, giving New York more time to prepare following Hurricane Sandy.
But Olsen said he's not thinking about the home-field advantage his club sacrificed. His thoughts entirely are on finding the result United need to keep their MLS Cup hopes alive.
"We'll go in there and try to grind it out," Olsen said. "There's a certain spirit about this team that I believe in, and going forward, I hope we can turn some heads in New York."
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