HARRISON, N.J. — After another wintry encounter at Red Bull Arena, a haze of snowflakes adding to the aura of a seething rivalry, D.C. United retreated to the warmth of the locker room both upbeat and relieved.
This 0-0 draw with New York felt like a victory because, although United’s attack coughed and sputtered all Saturday afternoon, the club withstood unbearable pressure. And thanks to goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s spectacular performance and help from the crossbar, United managed to escape with a point it didn’t deserve.
“I don’t know how we came out of that with a point,” midfielder Chris Pontius said, shaking his head.
The Red Bulls had a 24-4 advantage on shots (although only seven were on target) and hoarded possession at a 57-43 percentage clip — a figure that was closer than what really unfolded.
“What was possession? Like 90-10?” center back Brandon McDonald said. “That’s what it felt like for the defenders.”
Through 90 harrowing minutes, however, United (1-1-1) made critical defensive plays in the box and turned to Hamid for an escape route.
“There’s a lot to work on with this group,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “What we don’t need to work on right now is being a gutsy group.”
Courageous performances late last season carried injury-weakened United into the MLS playoffs and on to the Eastern Conference finals. But that trait will not sustain the club over the course of a long campaign.
“I was pleased with the commitment and fight, but on the soccer side, we need to get a lot better, particularly the midfield,” Olsen said.
Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles had to make one difficult save, thwarting Pontius’s low bid early in the second half. Otherwise, New York (0-1-2) maintained its grip on the match and manufactured a wealth of opportunities before an announced crowd of 22,022.
Hamid intervened, though, time and again.
In the eighth minute, he dived to his right to touch aside Thierry Henry’s low effort. In the 67th, while shifting across the six-yard box on a cross, he slapped down Tim Cahill’s sliding one-timer from close range with his trailing right hand.
And in stoppage time, he extended himself to get his right hand on a Brandon Barklage header that might’ve taken a slight deflection off United defender James Riley’s leg. Hamid blocked it at the goal line, prompting the Red Bulls to plead for a goal signal.
TV replays were not definitive, but the ball did not appear to fully cross the line.
“It did not go over. It was close,” said Hamid, who registered his second consecutive shutout. “It ping-ponged in there a little bit but I got there before it went over the line.”
Hamid also received help from the crossbar on Fabian Espindola’s 12-yard header in the first half and 17-yard rocket in the second.
“It’s no surprise he is the goalie of the future,” McDonald said of the 22-year-old keeper from Annandale. “He is a beast. He has saved us.”
Hamid, an alternate for the U.S. national team’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers, has strived to become more consistent, both in performance and preparation. The fits of immaturity seem to be fading.
“He’s maturing at a pretty quick pace,” Olsen said. “He has made strides and it’s been a joy to watch.”
Olsen also found a joy in the work by his back line, which was subjected to constant forays. But he took little solace from the possession game and attack.
“We’re missing that in our game right now,” he said. “I know that. The players know that. It’s about options, it’s about wanting the ball. It’s about quality of passing, it’s about the forwards holding the ball up.”
United wasn’t much better in its first two matches, but with the return of Dwayne De Rosario from a league suspension, Olsen expected better Saturday. After a promising start, his club relinquished the ball regularly and had to chase the game. United’s only goal in three matches came off a rebound against Real Salt Lake last week.
“We are trying to break out and make a killer pass whereas maybe we should pull it back and get a rhythm,” Pontius said. “We haven’t established a rhythm yet this year. It will come.”