NEW YORK — D.C. United has surged into MLS playoff contention by evolving from its blue-collar approach and performing with more style and dash. It has been a joy to watch. There are times, though, when bravery and resolve must carry the day, when defensive fortitude overrides the freewheeling attack, and timely tackles and desperation blocks decide outcomes.
Saturday was one of those times.
With almost as many absences as available players, with a bench so thin that Coach Ben Olsen might’ve considered coming out of retirement, United ground out a 1-1 draw with New York City FC before 28,239 at Yankee Stadium.
“On these days, can you find something out of it through grit and work rate and selflessness?” Olsen said. “That’s what I asked of them and that’s what they gave me, so I am very proud of the group.”
After Steve Birnbaum scored in the 58th minute, United (8-11-7) withstood relentless pressure before conceding David Villa’s equalizer in the 86th. Third-place NYCFC (14-8-7) had massive advantages in shots (31-2, although only nine were on target), corner kicks (12-0) and possession percentage (68-32).
“The way the game went, we ended up defending a lot more than we wanted, but the defense was brilliant,” forward Wayne Rooney said. “Unfortunately, we conceded the goal, but a point away from home is a good point.”
With that point, United took something from the Bronx after three consecutive defeats and a 10-3 scoring deficit in its first three trips here in previous seasons. D.C. inched closer to the playoff line, five points behind sixth-place Montreal with two games in hand. And United will play its next seven at home before closing the campaign at Chicago.
“Let’s hope,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said, “for seven wins.”
Before turning its attention to Minnesota on Wednesday, United will reflect on an arduous 90 minutes here.
Paul Arriola (United States), Junior Moreno (Venezuela), Zoltan Stieber (Hungary), Darren Mattocks (Jamaica) and Bruno Miranda (Bolivia) were in national team colors, while Yamil Asad, Oniel Fisher, Frederic Brillant, David Ousted, Chris Odoi-Atsem and Vytautas Andriuskevicius joined long-term absences Taylor Kemp and Nick DeLeon on the injury list. In all, seven regulars were absent.
United’s situation was inflamed by two factors. Most first-division leagues around the world go dark during FIFA fixture windows, when top players receive call-ups to their respective national teams. MLS thins the schedule but rarely shuts down completely, saying it needs to utilize the available dates, especially on weekends. In this FIFA period (plus one additional day), there are five MLS matches.
The second issue was the midseason opening of Audi Field. To maximize the number of games played at the new stadium, MLS agreed to backload United’s schedule, which meant it has more matches than all other teams over the second half of the season.
To fill voids Saturday, Olsen called on Ian Harkes, a central midfielder who hadn’t played in almost two months, to man the right flank. He also summoned Jalen Robinson for the first time since July 4, inserting him at right back.
Everyone else had been a regular for all, or portions, of the season. The bench options, though, were slim: third-choice goalkeeper Travis Worra, defender Kevin Ellis (a free agent who signed Thursday), midfielder Jared Jeffrey (one minute of playing time this year) and forward Dane Kelly (three minutes). Usually, teams carry seven subs.
NYC had personnel issues as well, with four players on international duty (including top scorer Ismael Tajouri-Shradi), several injuries and one suspension.
Although it wasn’t at full strength, United did have the menacing partnership of Rooney and Luciano Acosta. The duo struggled to find its flow, however. Without Arriola and Moreno, United lacked industry. Without Asad and Stieber, United lacked technical acumen to alleviate pressure on Acosta.
“It wasn’t our night with the ball,” Olsen said.
United’s breakthrough came on a set piece. Rooney served a free kick from 40 yards deep into the penalty area. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson was slow coming off his line, allowing the unmarked Birnbaum to nod the ball over him from inside the six-yard box.
“Wayne put it in a spot where I could go get it,” Birnbaum said. “I don’t know if the goalie didn’t think I was going to come. Those are the ones you are a little worried the goalie is going to clear you out.”
NYC ruled the rest of the night, putting United under duress but failing to solve Hamid, who made two quality saves and controlled the box.
With time melting away, the hosts found a solution. From 25 yards, Villa beat Hamid by lifting a set piece over the wall and into the right side of the net for his 11th goal of the year.
Unsatisfied with a draw at home, NYC continued storming United’s crumbling castle. But when it needed to dig deep, D.C. repelled the late threats.
“It’s a great point,” Olsen said. “A lot of guys out of position. A lot of players doing a little bit extra throughout the game to get something out of this. I thought it was one of those we could steal all three [points], but in the end, we’ll take a point.”