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After weather-related travel mess, D.C. United opens its season with a 1-1 draw

Orlando player Cam Lindley (left) and D.C. player Ulises Segura (right) head the ball during the D.C. United at Orlando City Soccer MLS game at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday, March 3, 2018. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO — D.C. United’s season dawned Saturday with all seven newcomers in the starting lineup, with the head coach watching from a suite, with two beneficial video reviews, a failed penalty kick and a red card to Orlando City.

It also carried some of the bad habits from 2017’s last-place finish and, despite a man and goal advantage for more than a half, United wilted down the stretch and conceded a late equalizer for a 1-1 draw before a purple-punctuated capacity crowd of 25,527 under a full moon.

Newcomer Yamil Asad scored in the 32nd minute, and for much of the first half, United performed with quality and valor. But after intermission, Orlando City seemed as though it was playing with the extra man.

“They gradually took the game, even with 10 men,” said assistant coach Chad Ashton, standing in for Ben Olsen, who served a one-game suspension carrying over from last year. “They started to run us into the ground a little bit and we started to get tired. They were coming wave after wave.”

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The last wave crashed on United. Justin Meram played a through ball to Jonathan Spector, who crossed to substitute Stefano Pinho for a seven-yard one-timer in the third of five additional minutes.

“Being a man up and having a goal lead,” defender Steve Birnbaum said, “we should come out of here with three points.”

Instead, United came out with one. And in a season that will start with 12 of 14 on the road, D.C. can ill-afford to squander such opportunities for victory.

The road-heavy first half of the season began with only a brief visit to central Florida. After two flight cancellations Friday, the delegation arrived on two charters some 7 1/2 hours before kickoff. It didn’t have any adverse effects right away as United engaged early, stayed organized, avoided the type of errors that plagued last season and looked very good at times.

The visitors received an assist from video replay after Will Johnson blocked Darren Mattocks’s cross. Referee Fotis Bazakos let play continue, but after a stoppage and sideline inspection, he awarded a 20th-minute penalty kick.

Mattocks, enlisted to help solve United’s scoring woes, targeted the right side with a rising attempt but Joe Bendik made a sensational save, pushing the ball off the crossbar.

The first-half fun was just beginning.

A dozen minutes later, Asad served an angled free kick from 25 yards that, without any surging bodies in the way, would’ve been handled easily by Bendik. But the commotion around the six-yard box weaponized the effort and, with the goalkeeper screened, the ball dipped untouched past Mattocks and several others before bouncing into the net.

The match took another turn a few minutes later when Victor Giro clocked Asad in the head with an outstretched arm. Bazakos showed a yellow card, but after video assistant referee Geoff Gamble alerted him to a possible serious infraction, he checked the replay and reached for a red.

Everything was flowing United’s way. “The first 30 minutes we played really well. And then almost going a man up killed our momentum,” goalkeeper David Ousted said. “We didn’t know when to keep the ball.”

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After intermission, Ulises Segura, an import from Costa Rica, tested Bendik from 30 yards. Another newcomer, Frederic Brillant, came to United’s rescue in the 57th minute, clearing Yoshimar Yotun’s volley off the goal line.

But United got worse as the half transpired. Orlando gained traction. D.C. didn’t concede any quality opportunities but wasn’t possessing the ball either. The pressure mounted.

“We’re the team with the man up,” Ashton said, “and we have to be a little more controlled and a little more calculated.”

Still, Mattocks could’ve essentially put the outcome to rest. Before taking a shot on a partial breakaway in the 79th minute, he allowed defender Mohamed El-Munir to catch him before launching a shot.

Orlando’s desperate push and D.C.’s fatigue left the visitors on their heels in the waning minutes. Inevitably, they snapped.

“We need to keep playing,” defender Nick DeLeon said. “I thought we got into a little bit of a defensive shell. We defended pretty well, but when you are conceding that many opportunities, you can give one away.”

United notes: Homegrown midfielder Chris Durkin, 18, made his regular season debut, entering for Asad in the 73rd minute. … D.C. will visit Atlanta next Sunday.

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