But United’s wondrous journey ended in heartbreaking fashion Thursday. After playing the Columbus Crew to a 2-2 draw through 120 minutes and forcing a penalty kick tiebreaker on Nick DeLeon’s spectacular goal deep into extra time, United fell in the shootout, 3-2.
Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen saved two attempts and, after United received a lifeline when Columbus hit the post, DeLeon skied his bid over the crossbar.
Audi Field fell silent. But just for a moment. An appreciative sellout crowd of 20,600 saluted the fallen club.
“It was a hell of a run,” Olsen said. “Don’t let this spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation for Audi Field and the next generation of D.C. United -- who we are and what we’re about. They got this city interested again in soccer and our team.”
Columbus will face the top-seeded New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, starting Sunday.
United had gone ahead in the 21st minute on Frederic Brillant’s goal. Federico Higuain scored the equalizer nine minutes later. Columbus was superior for the rest of regulation, and six minutes into 30 minutes of mandatory extra time, Higuain struck again on a header.
He distributed the ball wide to Harrison Afful and kept on running. No one impeded Higuain, who found a pocket in the heart of the penalty area and waited for Afful’s pinpoint delivery. The header beat Bill Hamid to the far corner.
United’s hopes were close to extinguished when DeLeon, a second-half substitute who had missed half of the season with a knee injury, scored a thunderbolt of a goal in the 116th minute.
Columbus’s Gyasi Zardes had tried to clear the ball from danger with a header. But the ball fell to DeLeon, who smashed an 18-yard volley between the reach of Steffen and the left post for his first goal in more than two years.
Mayhem engulfed the Buzzard Point venue.
In the tiebreaker, though Steffen stopped shots by United’s dynamic duo, Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. Hamid made one save and watched former D.C. forward Patrick Mullins’s try hit the post.
“Really, we had no right to make the playoffs,” said Rooney, the former Manchester United star whose mid-season arrival altered D.C.'s trajectory. “To do that, we’ve brought belief back to the fans, brought belief back to the team.”
Rooney and Acosta, the most electrifying combination in MLS the past three months, were stymied by Columbus’s defensive tactics.
Crew Coach Gregg Berhalter said, “There wasn’t space, there wasn’t many options for them.”
Added Rooney, “We couldn’t get the clear-cut chances which we had in previous games. Credit to them.”
The match crackled with energy, the crowd more engaged than in the busy stretch of regular season affairs. It was a playoff game, and it looked and sounded like it.
In the 21st minute, Rooney served a long free kick that hooked to the back side. Acosta tracked it down and, from almost the end line, lifted the ball into the six-yard box.
Steffen, a former University of Maryland standout who won the U.S. national team’s starting job this year, let the ball slip off his raised hands. It bounced in front of Brillant, who bravely nodded it as instant before knocking heads with Milton Valenzuela.
The lead was short-lived as Columbus turned up the pressure. The equalizer came in the 30th minute after Meram got behind Paul Arriola and crossed to the edge of the six-yard box. Junior Moreno and Joseph Mora failed to clear, allowing Higuain to slot it past Hamid.
United was fortunate to reach halftime without conceding another. The second half brought frustration for United, and in particular, for Rooney and Acosta, who labored to find their lethal rhythm.
Olsen turned to the bench in the 69th minute, inserting DeLeon for the hobbling Arriola. United continued conceding corner kicks (11 in all) and possession, triggering a nervous buzz through the crowd.
Acosta got himself into a minor scrap in the 72nd minute with Berhalter. As the ball went out of bounds in front of the Columbus bench, Berhalter tried to play it with his foot. Attempting to retrieve the ball, Acosta pushed him. No discipline was issued.
With the match creeping into the late stages of regulation, the volume reached decibels previously unheard at the new lair. United, though, continued to struggle to mount a sustained attack. Columbus had D.C. pinned back.
Hamid came to the rescue in the 85th minute with a save of breathtaking proportions, soaring to his right on Pedro Santos’s searing bid from long distance. Steffen did the same for the Crew in the 90th, making a leaping touch save on Acosta’s 23-yard rocket.
Higuain broke the tie early in overtime, DeLeon re-tied it late in overtime.
Steffen and the Crew were better in the tiebreaker. On the decisive shot, a teary DeLeon said, “I shanked it.”
Afterward, United tried accentuating the positive, a run that took its supporters on a memorable ride.
“They’re gutted,” Olsen said. “Because there was real belief that this was a team and a type of season you could do something very special in. When you have that belief and things fall short, in the way they did, it’s disappointing.”