Going into D.C. United’s regular-season finale Saturday with postseason seeding at stake, Chris Pontius knew what he wanted. It definitely wasn’t a match in the knockout round. And it wasn’t a playoff date with Houston or Chicago, either.
“I wanted to be matched up against New York,” Pontius said. “I think most of the other guys on the team felt the same way. I like the way we match up, I like the players that I’ve got, and I’ll take the players on my team any day over any of their players.”
The midfielder-forward got his wish Saturday, as United’s 1-1 draw at the Chicago Fire clinched the No. 2 spot for D.C. (17-10-7) and direct passage to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where the club will face its Atlantic Cup rival, the third-seeded New York Red Bulls (16-9-9).
With a loss, United would have fallen into fourth place and a knockout game with the fifth-seeded Houston Dynamo on Wednesday. Now, Chicago faces that unenviable road.
“We are now one of eight teams in the playoffs,” coach Ben Olsen said. “The other two have to go through a playoff, and that’s a big deal, playing back to back. It will start to take its toll. It’s certainly doable, but we wanted to avoid it.”
For a while Saturday, it seemed like United were poised for a slip in the standings, as a tremendous strike from Virginia Tech product Patrick Nyarko gave Chicago a 16th-minute lead. But Lionard Pajoy equalized for the visitors five minutes after halftime, and goalkeeper Bill Hamid preserved the draw with a series of show-stopping saves.
It was the second straight come-from-behind result for the team, which clinched a playoff berth Oct. 20 with a 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew.
“We’re a resilient group and we fight back,” Pontius said. “We don’t panic. Everyone gets on the same page, and I think that says a lot about our team.”
It’s no surprise Pontius is happy to see the Red Bulls. In United’s 4-1 thrashing of New York in April at a rainy RFK Stadium, the All-Star bagged his first career hat trick. While D.C. lost 3-2 at Red Bull Arena in June, Pontius scored both D.C. goals in that encounter.
The teams then wrapped the season series with a 2-2 draw in August, as Wilman Conde’s late equalizer for visiting New York spoiled Dwayne De Rosario’s 100th MLS goal.
United, of course, likely won’t have De Rosario (sprained knee ligament) for the two-game, total-goals series that opens Saturday in Harrison, N.J., before shifting Nov. 7 to the nation’s capital.
With the club 5-0-2 since the reigning league MVP went down, however, United’s confidence will remain high. Although New York boasts a star-studded lineup featuring highly paid designated players Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez, United’s “grittiness” gives them the advantage, Pontius said.
“We have a week to prepare for the match,” added rookie midfielder Nick DeLeon. “I feel like we will be ready, and it’s going to be a dogfight. I can’t wait.”