But D.C. survived the officiating miscue to escape with an inartistic but satisfying 1-0 victory before the announced sellout crowd of 25,218 at rainy Providence Park in Portland, Ore.
“It looks like it went in,” Coach Ben Olsen said after watching postgame video, “but the good news is we didn’t let that affect us and we continued to grind away and grab three points.”
The goal that did count was an own goal in the 25th minute, when Ulises Segura’s cross was inadvertently pushed into the Portland net by Timbers defender Bill Tuiloma, who slid at the ball as goalkeeper Steve Clark came forward.
With that, United (12-10-9) remained in the thick of the chase for a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference — and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs — and expanded its cushion for one of the seven postseason berths in the conference to eight points with three matches left.
A victory over the Seattle Sounders next Sunday at Audi Field would clinch a playoff slot.
The controversy — and the source of United’s anger and subsequent anxiety — came in the 38th minute.
The ball struck Portland’s Eryk Williamson, then caromed off Clark and toward the net. Williamson recovered to clear it, and play continued.
A freeze-frame of the first video replay showed the ball probably crossing the goal line as Williamson made contact. Another ESPN replay showed it clearly over the line.
Video replay, a global innovation that seems to have generated as much controversy as it has alleviated, is supposed to correct such errors.
In this case, however, video assistant referee Ricardo Salazar did not alert referee Drew Fischer to award a goal or at least review the video.
In response to a question from a pool reporter, the officiating crew said: “The decision on the field was that the ball had not fully crossed the line. The VAR checked the play and determined that the available angles did not show a clean error.”
So United had to settle for a halftime lead of one goal instead of two — a massive difference on the road against the dangerous Timbers (13-12-4), who are hard to beat on artificial turf.
They had threatened early in the match when Diego Valeri nodded a 12-yard header off the near post and, over the course of 90 minutes, enjoyed huge advantages on shots (23-7) and percentage of possession (67-33).
In the second half, Jorge Moreira’s cross took flight and stung the crossbar. United’s Russell Canouse, a natural midfielder starting again at right back, was fortunate to avoid a handball call in the penalty area when the ball popped up and struck him in the arm.
United could have put the outcome to rest in the 82nd minute, when, on one of its few quality possessions in the second half, Segura set up Paul Arriola for a clear run. However, Clark, a former D.C. goalkeeper, made a sensational hand save, making just enough contact to direct the ball off the crossbar.
Down the stretch, United blocked shots in the box and did not allow the Timbers to seriously test Bill Hamid, who recorded his 11th shutout.
“It’s nice to know you’ve got guys in the trenches willing to do what it takes to get results,” Olsen said. “The amount of blocked shots, guys putting their heads in tough spots, clearing balls — it was just a really great defensive effort.
“We have recommitted ourselves the last couple weeks to be a team that is very hard to play against. The players have done a good job responding. It starts with us getting to a good defensive structure and understanding we are at our best when we are tough to play against and gritty out there.”
Notes: Forward Ola Kamara, who scored two goals in the previous match, was scratched because of a tight hamstring. Wayne Rooney, who had missed the previous two games because of a red-card suspension, started instead. …
United improved to 6-6-4 on the road, the third-best away record in the 24-team league. …
Portland’s starting lineup included two players from the Washington area: Williamson (Alexandria, University of Maryland, D.C. United academy) and nine-goal scorer Jeremy Ebobisse (Walter Johnson High, Bethesda-Olney Soccer Club).