D.C. United offered another dour attacking performance Saturday, but after laboring to create any legitimate scoring opportunities, Ben Olsen’s wobbly squad scored a late equalizer to claim a 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids before 15,943 at DSG Park in Commerce City, Colo.
The Red Bulls’ comeback victory over Chicago on Friday had dislodged United from first place for the first time since May.
The Columbus Crew, United’s opponent next weekend at RFK Stadium, is one point behind the front-runners.
United was barely a threat until the late stage. Taylor Kemp played a short free kick to Espindola clear on the left. In his return from a six-week injury layoff, Espindola crossed to the back side. Birnbaum rose above two defenders and directed a six-yard header off goalkeeper Clint Irwin’s arm for his second goal of the season and United’s first in 321 minutes.
“We needed a result,” Birnbaum said. “It wasn’t a win, but it was a step in the right direction. We felt like a goal was going to come at some point.”
United, which has won at Colorado once in 15 years, would have clinched an MLS playoff berth with a victory. However, it did not play like a team bound for postseason and fell behind on Bobby Burling’s first-half goal.
Espindola, United’s most important attacking player, was reunited with Alvaro Saborio, but the forwards were out of sync and the midfield failed to keep possession, allowing the Rapids, the league’s lowest-scoring team, to dictate terms. United was constantly chasing the game and, when it did keep the ball, there was a glaring lack of combination work, dangerous through balls and crosses.
Returning from a two-week break, “We looked rusty and a little lethargic,” Olsen said.
After neither side generated any early quality opportunities, Colorado (8-10-10) went ahead in the 28th minute.
Beginning with a free kick from 30 yards, United failed on two occasions to clear the ball from danger. Burling, a central defender, one-timed a left-footer from the top of the penalty area. Screened by a cluster of players, goalkeeper Bill Hamid was screened and late to react to the shot, which kissed off the right post for Burling’s second goal of the season.
Trailing by a goal at the start of the second half, United’s challenge was two-fold: finding a rhythm and solving the Rapids’ resistance, which entered the weekend with the second-best goals against average in MLS.
After intermission, United’s drab ways continued while Colorado remained comfortable defending — two toothless teams at a standstill.
United showed fleeting signs of life but, aside from a high cross or two, didn’t test Irwin.
Olsen, though, was encouraged.
“I started to see signs of the team we are,” he said. “Our ideas were better, our execution was better and everything was just raised a little bit.”
D.C. has finished with a flourish throughout the season: Entering the match, it had posted 20 of its 35 goals in the last 30 minutes. The absence of energy and chemistry, however, neutralized that promising statistic. Espindola’s wayward, 30-yard free kick in the 66th minute soared toward the Rockies.
Despite his team’s difficulties, Olsen stuck with the starting collection until the 70th minute, when Jairo Arrieta replaced Saborio. Four minutes later, Michael Farfan came on for Halsti. Later, Chris Pontius replaced Chris Rolfe.
Instead of United pressing for the equalizer, the Rapids were on the prowl for a clinching goal. Hamid’s save on Kevin Doyle’s wicked strike in the 76th minute kept United in the hunt. Hamid thwarted Doyle again in the 84th.
After Birnbaum’s goal, Colorado’s Lucas Pittinari whiffed from close range and Hamid made a sterling save on Vicente Sanchez to preserve the tie.
“It’s a big point,” Olsen said. “It’s a big point for us right now.”
United will get back to work Tuesday in the CONCACAF Champions League against Panama’s Arabe Unido at RFK Stadium. With a victory or draw, D.C. will win the three-team group and secure passage to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive time.
United notes: In the third-division USL, goalkeeper Travis Worra started and midfielder Collin Martin entered in the 63rd minute of the Richmond Kickers’ 1-1 draw at Harrisburg City Islanders.
D.C. United lineup: Hamid; Franklin, Boswell, Birnbaum, Kemp; DeLeon, Kitchen, Halsti (Farfan 74th), Rolfe (Pontius 80th); Espindola, Saborio (Arrieta 70th).