- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2012

HARRISON, N.J. — A superstorm, a nor’easter and a pair of corresponding postponements stood between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls playing their decisive playoff contest as planned. But when the match finally unfolded Thursday at Red Bull Arena, the drama proved worth the wait.

As the final whistle blew, United rookie Nick DeLeon sprinted, arms outstretched, to the roughly 300 United fans in attendance, many of whom had made the trip up Interstate 95 for the second straight day.

This high-flying United team is on a mission, one Mother Nature could only delay. On to the Eastern Conference final it goes.

“Just being a part of this group, it’s been a great journey,” DeLeon said. “It’s not over yet. But it’s been a great ride.”

Paced by a penalty-kick stop from backup goalkeeper Joe Willis, a savvy assist by veteran right back Robbie Russell, and a calm 88th-minute finish by DeLeon, United defeated New York 1-0 on Thursday to claim the two-game, total-goals conference semifinal by a 2-1 aggregate score.

D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon, top, leaps over New York Red Bulls defender Rafa Marquez, bottom, during the first half of an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal playoff game on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
D.C. United midfielder Nick DeLeon, top, leaps over New York Red Bulls ... more >

United, who this season ended a four-year playoff drought, will open the Eastern Conference final Sunday at fifth-seeded Houston after the Dynamo upset first-place Sporting Kansas City in the other semifinal.

While DeLeon has enjoyed a stellar campaign, plying for Rookie of the Year honors, Russell made his first start since July 15 and Willis saw his first minutes since July 21. For a squad that remains undefeated (6-0-3) since reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario went down with a mid-September knee injury, the role of hero has been shared by prominent and unlikely figures alike.

“This team, it doesn’t matter who you’re putting on the field,” Russell said. “Everyone comes up with big plays.”

In a series defined by myriad twists of fate, it was only appropriate this match took a wild turn late. Put in alone on Bill Hamid in the 71st minute, New York forward Kenny Cooper rounded the charging United goalkeeper and fell to the turf, drawing a penalty kick and a red card.

Initially, Cooper converted from the spot after Willis came in cold. But referee Mark Geiger waved the goal off for encroachment — the same call he made against D.C. to cost the side a win over Philadelphia in August.

When Cooper retook the shot, Willis pushed it aside.

“You don’t have a lot of time to think,” Willis said of his abrupt entrance. “You’ve just got to get ready and get out there.”

Added coach Ben Olsen: “We bailed another guy out. We bailed Bill out. And that has been the M.O. of this team. They continue to do that when the chips are down, and there is a certain spirit about them.”

Minutes later, Red Bulls defender Rafa Marquez — a Mexican star renowned for his hot temper — received a second yellow card and was sent off, evening the sides at 10 players apiece.

With the series seemingly destined for overtime, DeLeon made his mark. Making a diagonal run behind the New York defense, he stayed onside thanks to lagging Red Bulls right back Connor Lade, latched onto a through ball from Russell, and slotted a shot past Luis Robles.

Story Continues →