Pontius added a second goal midway through the second half to trim the deficit to one.
But New York (9-4-3) repelled United (9-5-3) in the late stages to forge a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference at 30 points. United had a four-game winning streak end and suffered just its third defeat in 14 matches.
Brandon Barklage, an outside defender who suffered two anterior cruciate ligament injuries in three seasons with United before joining New York this year, scored his first two career goals on terrific finishes in the first half and Jan Gunnar Solli struck shortly after intermission.
“We thought it was going to be another 3-0 game and sat back and let them move the ball,” captain Dwayne De Rosario said, referring to United’s fast start during a 4-1 win over New York in April when Pontius scored in the eighth minute.
“The second half we started to take the game to them. We had chances. Another day we could’ve walked away with a tie.”
With both clubs enjoying successful seasons nearing the midway mark, this meeting carried more bite than recent encounters. The sides sizzled from the start and engaged in an open and entertaining match that featured a wealth of scoring opportunities.
United punctured the tension right away.
Danny Cruz initiated the sequence and assisted on the goal with industrious work and a perfect touch. After winning possession in midfield, Cruz made a sharp exchange with De Rosario, who led the winger to the end line. Pontius made a near-post run and met Cruz’s cross in stride for a glancing header.
The Red Bulls, however, gorged on possession the remainder of the half.
“We didn’t figure out how to deal with some of the numbers they were throwing forward,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “We needed to be a little bit sharper on the ball rather than give it right back to them, and now it’s coming down our throat again.”
The equalizer came from a familiar, but unlikely, figure. Barklage beat De Rosario to Joel Lindpere’s corner kick and stabbed a leaping volley past Bill Hamid. Barklage struck again in first-half added time with a thunderous 17-yard volley.
Reflecting on Barklage’s time in Washington, Pontius said: “He’s one of those guys when in practice, you line up and question whether you should move out of the way. I’ve seen him hit a ball like that a million times. It’s a great hit.”
Hamid’s work kept it close, but in the 55th minute, the Red Bulls executed a counterattack. Hamid thwarted Solli’s bid with a kick stop, but Solli pounced on the rebound for a 3-1 lead.
United answered in the 66th when Pontius collected Maicon Santos’s gorgeous through ball and beat Ryan Meara one on one. Pontius had a golden chance to complete a second hat trick against the Red Bulls this year but missed at the six-yard box. Santos and Robbie Russell also threatened, and De Rosario’s promising runs were nullified by two offside calls.
“It’s a big rivalry, especially with both of us on top of the table,” defender Daniel Woolard said. “And I think it’s going to remain that way.”
United note: Olsen and two other former stars, Tony Sanneh and Carlos Llamosa, were nominated for one slot in the club’s Hall of Tradition. Voting is taking place at dcunited.com.
●TIMBERS 2, SOUNDERS 1: Kris Boyd scored his fifth goal of the season, David Horst converted a header and the Timbers earned a much-needed win in Portland, Ore.
Portland (4-6-4) jumped ahead of its archrival early and held off the attacking Sounders for its first win in the league series since joining the MLS last year.
The Timbers went up in the 16th minute when Boyd slipped past the defense and sent home a cross from Steven Smith. Horst scored just nine minutes later for a 2-0 lead.
Seattle (7-5-4) saw its winless streak extend to seven games, the longest in its MLS history, now in its fourth season. Seattle’s Fredy Montero and Portland’s Lovel Palmer were both issued red cards in the final minutes.