D.C. United 2, Crew 2
About an hour before his club's 2-2 tie with the Columbus Crew on Saturday night, D.C. United Coach Peter Nowak said he found it puzzling and troubling that every team in MLS had been awarded a penalty kick this season except United.
Nowak's concerns were put to rest, to some extent, in the 76th minute when Columbus's Frankie Hejduk was whistled for a hand ball in the box, setting up Jaime Moreno's tying penalty kick.
It wasn't the road victory that United (6-8-8) desperately needed after earning only one win in its first 10 games away from home, but it did keep the club in the thick of the Eastern Conference race with eight matches remaining. The Crew (7-5-9), playing before an overflow crowd of 23,849, extended its unbeaten streak to nine games (3-0-6), tying a team record.
"We fought all the way to the end and showed we have a lot of heart," Moreno said. "We proved to ourselves that we can do it and that it wasn't impossible."
The equalizer came at the end of a wild minute in Columbus's end. Moreno made a gorgeous pass to Freddy Adu, whose clear run on the right was stopped by goalkeeper Jon Busch. A moment later, Adu darted deep on the right side again and had the ball knocked away at the final instant by defender Chad Marshall.
But after the ensuing corner kick, Hejduk inadvertently handled Dema Kovalenko's cross.
"Giving up a PK in the 76th minute is definitely a recipe for disaster, and it was," Crew Coach Greg Andrulis said.
Besides the first penalty kick, perhaps the greatest revelation for United was the attacking play of Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez, who made his debut after joining the team last weekend. Gomez entered in the 71st minute and demonstrated acute vision in a pivotal central role. His insertion pushed Adu from the middle to the right side, where the teenager found more space and was increasingly dangerous.
"Christian showed what he could do," Nowak said. "It's what we need and he did very well for the first time."
Said Kovalenko: "He changed the game for us. It's what we kind of lacked in the first half. He came in and held the ball for us and moved the ball well."
The match got off to a bland start as neither team was able to establish an attacking rhythm. But in the 35th minute, United went ahead on a set piece. Alecko Eskandarian was fouled by rookie Chris Wingert a few strides outside the penalty area. After deliberating a course of action with several players lurking around the ball, Kovalenko touched it to Earnie Stewart, who set it for Eskandarian to bend a 25-yard shot through the Columbus wall and into the right side of the net for his seventh goal.
The strike seemed to invigorate United's attack, which intensified its pace and began linking quick, short passes between Crew defenders. Moreno forced Busch into a falling save with a long bid in the 38th minute.
But Columbus regrouped in the final five minutes of the half. In the 40th, Simon Elliott set up powerful striker Edson Buddle, whose quick header was stopped by fast-reacting goalkeeper Troy Perkins. But three minutes later, Elliott delivered a free kick deep into the box. Duncan Oughton got a step on United's Brian Carroll and nodded an eight-yarder past Perkins for his first MLS goal in 82 appearances over four seasons.
The Crew pulled ahead nine minutes into the second half on another dead-ball situation, this one set up when Ezra Hendrickson was called for knocking down Kyle Martino 25 yards from the target.
Ross Paule took care of the rest, perfectly striking the free kick over the wall and into the upper right corner, just out of the reach of the soaring Perkins.
D.C. defender Brandon Prideaux prevented further damage seven minutes later, sliding to break up Buddle's dangerous chance deep in the box. Just when it seemed the game was slipping away, United should have tied it. Eskandarian slipped free and ran onto Kovalenko's pass and sent a clear header wide of the far post.
But United kept coming and finally found the tying goal.
"I'm never satisfied with one point" for a tie, Nowak said, "but you have to take it. We pushed until the end and we wanted to win this game."
United Notes: Midfielder Ben Olsen served a one-game suspension for accumulating yellow cards. . . . Nowak said he is hopeful all-star defender Ryan Nelsen (hernia surgery) will be available for the Sept. 4 match at Chicago.