D.C. United vs. Columbus: Fabian Espindola’s late penalty kick is saved in 0-0 draw


D.C. United's Davy Arnaud, left, and Ben Speas of Columbus tangle for the ball. The game was at FedEx Field, United’s first MLS home game away from RFK Stadium since the league’s inception in 1996. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

By the time D.C. United’s Fabian Espindola stepped to the penalty spot deep into stoppage time Saturday night, most of the big crowd that had witnessed FedEx Field’s feature attraction — the Spain-El Salvador friendly — was long gone.

Those who left had not missed much. United and the Columbus Crew engaged in a forgettable MLS affair on an unfamiliar and narrow field. In the final moments, though, the teams provided an oddly unforgettable ending — one that left them in a 0-0 draw and prevented United from claiming first place in the Eastern Conference.

In the fourth of five extra minutes, Columbus was called for a handball. Instead of rocketing the penalty kick into a corner, though, Espindola chipped it softly down the middle, figuring goalkeeper Steve Clark would hurl himself in one direction or the other.

Clark did not budge. He didn’t have to dive or leap or even bend over. The ball floated to him as if a child had tossed it.

“I really thought he was going to move,” said Espindola, the most instrumental figure in United’s renaissance this year. “Good for him. He saved the game. Not a lot of keepers stay like that. He had the [guts] to stay there.”

Clark said he knew what was coming, thanks to pregame planning with assistant coach Pat Onstad, a former D.C. goalkeepers coach.

“Pat probably has videos of guys taking PKs in their back yard,” Clark said. Espindola “gave me the cues and I read them correctly. I was going to hold my ground up the middle.”

Clark did not reveal what clues Espindola had revealed; he said he might need to use them again someday.

Asked what recommendations he had provided, Onstad denied any inside knowledge. “Steve Clark’s Jedi mind tricks,” he said, grinning.

Said United Coach Ben Olsen: “It’s a little disappointing in the end not to get it, but Fabi has been the man for us this year. He can certainly take the next one.”

The draw left United (6-4-4) one point behind first-place New England, which was idle Saturday, and level with Sporting Kansas City. Columbus, which earned a victory and draw in the teams’ previous meetings, is 4-5-6.

United’s home unbeaten streak reached eight, even though it was playing a home game somewhere other than RFK Stadium for the first time since MLS’s 1996 launch. United appeared at FedEx Field twice before, friendlies against Chelsea and Real Madrid.

This match was scheduled for RFK, but when MLS arranged Spain’s pre-World Cup appearance, United agreed to participate in a doubleheader.

About half of the 53,267 spectators left after Spain’s 2-0 victory over El Salvador, and with United and the Crew generating few opportunities, the crowd slimmed in the second half to probably 15,000 — closer to D.C.’s RFK average of 12,275.

The field was not conducive to attractive soccer.

Aside from tighter dimensions, the grass “was slow and thick,” Olsen said. “It’s not built for soccer; it’s built for big boys to run around and tackle each other.”

United’s Bill Hamid, who recorded his fourth shutout in 11 starts, made a diving save on Bernardo Anor’s low effort in the 55th minute and blocked Adam Bedell’s rasping drive in the 83rd.

Clark made a superb stop on Jared Jeffrey’s bid in the 84th.

In stoppage time, United’s Conor Doyle lifted the ball at the edge of the penalty area, striking Anor in the arm.

Espindola (team-high seven goals) then failed to convert his cheeky attempt.

“It wasn’t the greatest night for us, but the first half was pretty good and we did enough to get a couple” of goals, Olsen said. “We should probably come in [at halftime] with a goal or two. They brought some juice in the second half and we didn’t really have a stamp on the game.”

United notes: Forward Eddie Johnson left in the 58th minute after rolling his right ankle. . . . Center back Steve Birnbaum, the second overall pick in the MLS draft, made his pro debut in place of Jeff Parke, who was scratched with a foot injury. . . .

Midfielder Perry Kitchen served a one-game suspension for accumulating yellow cards. . . . The Crew was without top attacker Federico Higuain (hamstring).

●TORONTO FC 1, EARTHQUAKES 0: Jermain Defoe scored on a penalty shot in the 26th minute for Toronto at home against San Jose.

●WHITECAPS 3, UNION 3: Pedro Morales scored his team-best sixth goal on a penalty kick in the 81st minute as Vancouver stretched its unbeaten streak to seven against Philadelphia in Chester, Pa.

●FC DALLAS 3, RAPIDS 2: In Frisco, Tex., Fabian Castillo scored in the 62nd minute and FC Dallas snapped an eight-game winless streak.

●SOUNDERS 3, FIRE 2: Obafemi Martins scored twice in the first half before being ejected for Seattle against Chicago in Bridgeview, Ill. Harry Shipp scored twice for Chicago.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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