The winless streak reached five (0-1-4), but the third straight draw was enough to retain first place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Atlanta, two in front of Philadelphia and three on Montreal and the New York Red Bulls.
Luciano Acosta scored for United (7-4-6) in the 67th minute after Chris Wondolowski, MLS’s all-time leading scorer, put the Earthquakes (5-6-3) ahead late in the first half. A crowd of 18,002 at Audi Field included U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter.
“The last two games didn’t go our way and we found a way to get something out of it,” Coach Ben Olsen said of dual home draws over four days. “Certainly we can get better, but with all the circumstances, to get something out of this is pretty impressive.”
United, however, was again outplayed in the first half and fell behind.
Captain Wayne Rooney sounded another warning, saying, “We’ve been fortunate where we are in the league. This is a big wake-up call, this last month. If we don’t wake up on the pitch ... we won’t improve.”
United was markedly better in the second half, but the strain of three matches in eight days and a congested overall schedule began to show. Montreal is the only other team to have played 17 matches, and by the end of the weekend, eight will have played between 12 and 14.
“It’s been mentally draining,” Canouse said. “We didn’t get enough points as we wanted in these last few games, but we are ready for a good breather.”
United’s Paul Arriola, a Berhalter call-up for the U.S. friendly against Jamaica on Wednesday at Audi Field, returned from a two-game suspension, but Olsen was not content with a simple, man-for-man change. He revisited his secondary formation — three center backs, two wing backs and two attacking midfielders behind Rooney.
Olsen’s plans blew up in the 25th minute, however, when Canouse limped off with a minor ankle injury. Leonardo Jara entered, and Arriola had to move into the middle.
United crackled with energy at the start but did not manufacture many quality opportunities. The Earthquakes gained traction around the 30th minute and, after several dangerous chances, claimed a well-deserved lead in the 37th.
Nick Lima swung a cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Wondolowski claimed position in front of Jalen Robinson and, as he has done so efficiently for 10 years, nodded a seven-yard header into the near side for his 151st regular season goal.
With additional men committed to the attack after intermission, United began to stir. In a two-minute span, San Jose’s Daniel Vega made terrific saves on Jara, Acosta and Junior Moreno.
United lost Birnbaum in the 60th minute, the result of an aerial collision with Florian Jungwirth on a corner kick. Birnbaum received treatment on the field, then was escorted to the locker room with a towel pressed to his head to contain the bleeding.
It was his second head wound in recent weeks; the previous one required staples, then several stitches on the other side of his head.
Olsen said, “He is made out of something different.”
While he was undergoing evaluation in the locker room — he passed concussion protocol — Birnbaum said he heard the roar of the crowd when Acosta scored his fifth of the year.
Vega blocked Jara’s 30-yard bid but left the rebound. Acosta pounced, running onto the free ball and pounding in an eight-yard one-timer. On Wednesday against Chicago, the Argentine playmaker scored in the 81st minute — United’s third consecutive goal — for a 3-2 lead, only to see the Fire equalize in stoppage time.
On this night, both sides threatened down the stretch, United with greater urgency of victory. Birnbaum’s injury and other delays added seven minutes, then another three in stoppage time, onto the unraveling match.
Wondolowski pocketed another goal but was a step offside. Tempers flared, and two confrontations required intervention.
On and on it went but still not enough time for United, which will welcome the midseason pause.
“I am proud of the guys for where we are right now,” Olsen said. “Now it’s important to start fine-tuning who we are and get better because everyone else is getting better. ... I look forward to the break. I also look forward to the second half of the season.”
Notes: Audi Field officials and the U.S. Soccer Federation signed a deal for the women’s national team to play a friendly in Washington in November, two people familiar with the talks said. An official announcement is expected this summer. ...
Although United will not play another league match for 3½ weeks, the team will be in action June 12 against visiting Philadelphia in the U.S. Open Cup’s round of 32. By advancing, D.C. would play a week later against Columbus or second-division Pittsburgh.