The 2-2 draw with Toronto FC felt very much like a victory.
Returning from ACL surgery he underwent more than a year ago, Federico Higuaín scored in the 84th minute, four minutes after making his D.C. debut. And in the first minute of stoppage time, United equalized when center back Steven Birnbaum nodded Felipe Martins’s free kick to center back Frédéric Brillant for a seven-yard header.
“It has not been an easy 10 to 11 days since we got here,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “A lot of moving parts, a lot of cancellations and games being moved. So to get something out of that game says a lot about our group.”
As the final whistle sounded, frustration and anger over events of the past few days spilled out. Players exchanged words and shoves.
The match had been scheduled for Friday night but was moved to Sunday morning because Toronto was late arriving in Florida. Then, less than an hour before Sunday’s kickoff, amid a health scare affecting both teams, United arrived at the field but Toronto did not. MLS rescheduled it for Monday.
“We had the feeling they didn’t respect us because we were waiting two times and they didn’t show two times,” Brillant said. “Before we start the game, there was tension between them and us. And in the end, they were frustrated because we came back.”
Olsen concurred. “It’s no secret our boys were a little bit pissed off about how this all played out to get to this point,” he said. “But a lot of it is out of their control and out of our control.”
Toronto captain Michael Bradley, who was in the middle of the scuffle, said: “We’ve gotten a real sense that they’re pissed off and angry, [as if] we’re trying to cheat the system. That obviously couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Most of the morning, everything went Toronto’s way. Ayo Akinola, a 20-year-old forward, took advantage of defensive flaws to score twice, and United’s Júnior Moreno was sent off for a second yellow card just before halftime.
“Certainly in the first half,” Olsen said, “they were a much better team.”
Down a man, Olsen made changes that influenced the match. Yamil Asad brought possession and savvy. Chris Odoi-Atsem, Oniel Fisher and Kevin Paredes — a 17-year-old homegrown signing from South Riding making his MLS debut — injected speed and energy.
And Higuaín, a player and assistant coach as he nears the end of a terrific career, added sophistication and leadership. He halved the deficit on a breakaway, collecting Martins’s splendid through ball and coolly chipping his shot over goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
“Amazing ball by Felipe,” said Higuaín, 35. “He put me in a very good situation.”
In stoppage time, Martins served a long free kick into the penalty area. Birnbaum won the first header, and Brillant won the second. The Frenchman also scored in United’s last match before the season was suspended by the pandemic.
“It’s only about mentality and about character, and we showed today we have very good character,” said Brillant, who scored four times in the previous four MLS seasons.
United will resume Group C play Friday against New England, which won its opener last week. Group play counts toward the regular season, and this result left United with a 1-1-1 record after splitting games in February and March.
Since August, Toronto (1-0-2) is unbeaten in 13 straight regular season matches (5-0-8).
Doubts about this match finally going forward were put to rest when the team buses arrived about 75 minutes before kickoff. A day earlier, United showed but Toronto did not amid a positive coronavirus test to a D.C. player and an inconclusive result from an opponent.
Both have since tested negative but were not permitted to join their delegations Monday, pending further testing. (Later Monday, both were cleared to resume team activities.)
The concern involving these teams followed last week’s withdrawal of FC Dallas and Nashville SC because of several positive tests.
Toronto set the tone. United was uninspiring.
The lack of pressure on the ball cost United in the 12th minute. United’s passivity left Akinola with a pocket of space for a right-footed strike from the top of the penalty area that bent away from goalkeeper Bill Hamid before splashing into the left side of the net.
The situation worsened for United in the 44th minute. Under pressure from Alejandro Pozuelo deep in D.C.'s end, Brillant relinquished the ball. Pozuelo pounced, then crossed to Akinola for a tap-in.
Before halftime, United stirred, then committed another awful sin.
Westberg made a breathtaking reflex save on Ola Kamara’s header from point-blank range.
With seconds left in stoppage time, Moreno inexplicably crashed into a Toronto player for a second yellow card. Later in the game, Martins was fortunate to avoid a red card.
The second half was a bore until Martins set up Higuaín.
United was alive and, under preposterous circumstances, stole a point in the dying moments.
“I’ve been extremely proud of the way our team dug in and found a point,” Olsen said. “It has not been an easy road here, with all the twists and turns. For these guys to stay mentally tough during that time and not fold when it’s 2-0 and you are down a man in that heat, it shows the grit and mentality of our team. Now we’ve got to get better.”