- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2018

It was remarkable that D.C. United were in the MLS Cup Playoffs to begin with, but the 2018 Wayne Rooney Renaissance ended without a postseason victory.

Federico Higuain scored two goals for fifth-seeded Columbus Crew as they went on to win, 2-2 (3-2 on penalties), over No. 4 United in the knockout round on Thursday at Audi Field.

United were eliminated from the playoffs with the loss, extinguishing a 10-game unbeaten streak and putting an early end to their season. The team was riding high as part of a larger turnaround that started when they signed Rooney and opened their new soccer-specific stadium in July.

Frederic Brillant and Nick DeLeon scored United’s goals, and keeper Bill Hamid made four saves.

The Crew advance to play top-seeded New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

In penalties, Rooney missed United’s first shot and Crew jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but United roared back with successful shots from Yamil Asad and Zoltan Stieber. But Niko Hansen put the Crew back ahead 3-2 and United miss their final two shots.

United coach Ben Olsen said his team was “gutted” and silent in the locker room after the loss, but the season on the whole was hardly a waste.

“It was a hell of a run,” Olsen said. “Don’t let this spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation for Audi Field and kind of the next generation of D.C. United — who we are and what we’re about. I’m extremely proud of them for doing it. They got this city interested again in soccer and our team.”

“We had no right to make the playoffs,” Rooney added later. “We’ve brought back belief to the fans, brought back belief to the team.”

The Black and Red struck first in the 21st minute. Rooney sent a free kick to the back post, where Luciano Acosta received it and sent it into the box. Steffen got a glove on the ball, leaving Brillant in position for a diving header to score.

The Crew answered with a goal 10 minutes later. Justin Meram got free in the left corner and punched a crossing pass into some traffic. Hamid expected a shot and dove one way, but the ball popped out of the United defenders’ possession to Higuain, who had an easy finish.

D.C. had its chances on set pieces. A couple of Rooney corner kicks at the end of the half didn’t amount to much. The star forward would later have some close-range free kicks, but Columbus defended them well.

As the second half wore on, Paul Arriola, who started for United at right back, left the game injured in the 69th minute and DeLeon subbed on for him.

Rooney and Acosta teamed up on a great exchange in the 90th minute and nearly won the game. Acosta came up wide on the left side and passed it to Rooney, then moved behind him to receive the ball back and fire a shot straight on. Steffen tipped it over the top bar.

In extra time, Harrison Afful found Higuain on a cross in the 96th minute, and Higuain headed it in past Hamid’s reach. But as the minutes wound down, United found their equalizer.

With the ball in the Crew’s box in the 116th minute, a Columbus defender tried to clear it out and instead kicked it directly at DeLeon, who sent in a screamer that curled past Steffen.

Rooney would get one final free kick in added time, but as the wind picked up in Audi Field, his ball sailed straight to Steffen, necessitating penalty kicks.

DeLeon was United’s fifth penalty-taker. With a chance to double-up on his heroics and tie the penalties period at three, his shot sailed over the crossbar.

The midfielder could be found later sitting solemnly in front of his locker, staring at the floor, as teammates walked over one at a time to comfort him.

“I felt pretty confident going in,” DeLeon said of the penalty kick, but ultimately, “I shanked it. I got underneath it. I don’t know what else to say.”

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