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.
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.
“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.
The aggregate win was United’s first playoff series triumph since a 2-1 victory over the Red Bulls in 2006, continuing a yearlong resurgence for what historically has been the league’s most successful club.
Second-seeded D.C. (17-10-7) and No. 3 New York (16-9-9) traded own goals for a 1-1 draw at RFK Stadium on Saturday in Game 1.
Originally set to be hosted by United on Wednesday, this decisive second leg was moved to Red Bull Arena when the organizations last week swapped home playoff dates following Superstorm Sandy. In theory, the switch was made to give the New York metropolitan area more time to recover from the storm’s devastation.
But the weather again intervened. As a nor’easter struck the region, a steady stream of wet snow caused an hour-long delay Wednesday. When it became evident the flakes were falling faster than they could be shoveled, the match was postponed altogether.
Some 700 United fans traveled Wednesday, only to head straight back to the District after the postponement. But that did not stop many from hopping on a league-provided bus Thursday to again make the trip.
“This organization has been through some tough years, and these fans have suffered,” Olsen said. “They were spoiled early, and then they went through a drought. So this gives them hope. This gives them excitement.”
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