A raucous RFK Stadium crowd may have witnessed the theatrics of postseason soccer for the first time in five years Saturday, but neither D.C. United nor the New York Red Bulls seemed well cast as playoff contenders.
Throughout a wild evening, there were errors aplenty between the longtime rivals. Porous defending on a New York own goal, sloppy goalkeeping on one from D.C. A penalty kick called on a Red Bull rookie, then missed by a United veteran. And a teenage star for the home team getting tossed for a display of unhinged immaturity.
When all was said and done, United and the Red Bulls found themselves deadlocked 1-1 after the first leg of their two-game, total-goals Eastern Conference semifinal.
“The second I got out of the tunnel, I had chills,” United coach Ben Olsen said of the atmosphere. “It was just like the old days. I think they were treated to a pretty interesting game. I would have loved to send them home with smiles on their faces.”
After New York substitute Roy Miller and D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid traded second-half own goals, it was 19-year-old United phenom Andy Najar who changed the tenor of the match, drawing a 71st-minute ejection for two yellow cards in quick succession — one for a careless tackle and another for hurling the ball at referee Jair Marrufo.
Like Hamid’s slip-up and Chris Pontius‘ saved first-half penalty kick, it was a costly lapse at a time of year when such mistakes can’t be stockpiled. Down to 10 men, United lost much of the attacking momentum they had carried, left to settle for a draw at home and take their chances in Wednesday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena.
“We played well enough to win, but we didn’t,” Pontius said. “So it’s a 90-minute game now up there.”
It was United’s first playoff match since the 2007 Eastern Conference semifinals, ending a four-year drought for the club that has won more MLS Cups (four) than any other organization.
It came four days earlier than expected. On Wednesday, United and the Red Bulls made the decision to swap home playoff dates, giving New York additional time to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
Feeding off the 17,556 in attendance, United came out firing, pinning the Red Bulls deep in their end while drawing a slew of set pieces. Midfielder Perry Kitchen largely pulled the strings, winning tackles and switching the point of attack with ease. Denied service, prolific New York attackers Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry were rendered largely invisible.
“They’re definitely a great team,” Kitchen said. “But if we’re playing at our best, with good pressure, good possession, we can hang with any team.”
Identifying a mismatch on the flank, United fed Pontius, who repeatedly pushed by rookie right back Connor Lade with ease, drawing a yellow card on one particularly reckless challenge.
In the 32nd minute, Lade’s tumultuous evening hit a low point. As Branko Boskovic attempted to round the 22-year-old, the ball struck Lade’s arm. After a moment of hesitation, Marrufo pointed to the spot.
Up stepped Pontius, the freshly minted team MVP who scored a career-high 12 goals this season. But as the fourth-year player went with power over placement, Luis Robles stood his ground and pushed the shot aside. RFK groaned.
“I just missed it,” Pontius said. “I struck it well. I just need to put it up in the corner a little bit more.”
In the 61st minute, the crowd finally found reason to celebrate. Moments after Hamid’s save on Joel Lindpere at the other end, United took the lead when Miller redirected Chris Korb’s cross into his own net.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Four minutes later, Red Bulls defender Heath Pearce lobbed a header toward the D.C. goalmouth. As Hamid rose to collect, he collided with New York’s Markus Holgersson, fell to the turf, and allowed the ball to cross the goal line by a hair.
“He decided to bump me right before my jump,” Hamid said of Holgersson. “I guess that’s not a foul. I thought it was going to be a call. I thought it was going to be a clear call.”
While Pontius and Lionard Pajoy had chances to give 10-man United an unlikely winner after Najar’s red card, D.C. was resigned to its fate. If United are going to advance, they’ll need to do so with a triumph away from the comforts of home.
“The guys battled down a man,” Olsen said. “I’m proud of the group. I really am. We could have lost that one in the end, but we dug in and we held on to the tie. Ultimately, I’m a little disappointed we didn’t win, though, because I think we played well enough to get the result.”
NOTE: MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters pregame that the second leg at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., has been confirmed as a go for Wednesday.