The frustration continued to mount in the driving rain Saturday at RFK Stadium as a piecemeal crowd booed after D.C. United forward Eddie Johnson was tripped inside the box in the 35th minute. It had been nearly eight months since United had won a regular season game. The team hadn’t scored a goal all season. And now, with D.C. down a goal early to the Chicago Fire, no penalty kick was being awarded.
Instead, the referee called for a free kick just outside the box, and it turned out to be a veiled gift. If the first two losses of the season lacked offensive production, ingenuity even, then this was the time for United to do something about it. So midfielder Nick DeLeon approached the kick as if he was going to unwind — then gently tapped the ball back across the slick field with his heel to set up a drive by Fabian Espindola.
Espindola’s left-footer beat Chicago’s Sean Johnson, one of the league’s best goalkeepers, to tie the score, and Perry Kitchen added a scrappy second-half goal as D.C. United earned a 2-2 tie with the Fire.
“I think that we got a lot better with the ball, finishing,” Espindola said. “Obviously it wasn’t enough.”
D.C. (0-2-1) entered Saturday’s contest badly in need of a win, and although it didn’t earn one on a sloppy day against the Fire (0-1-3), the third match of the season at least represented progress. Following a busy offseason in which it honed in on its offensive deficiencies, United looked crisp in the first 25 minutes Saturday after opening the season with slumbering losses to Columbus and Toronto.
Johnson had to improvise a save with his feet after Espindola nearly beat him in the 16th minute, and D.C. forward Eddie Johnson showed no fear in shooting from just outside the box two minutes later, watching as the ball whistled inches past the right post. Even after Chicago took a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute on a John Kennedy Hurtado header that beat D.C. keeper Bill Hamid to the top right corner, United stayed relentless — and creative — in its offensive approach.
Espindola said he and DeLeon have worked to perfect the back-heel free kick in practice, but the plan normally calls for the ball to be kicked over the defensive wall. With Saturday’s torrential downpour, Espindola used the conditions to his advantage and elected to deliver the shot low, which forced Johnson to move laterally in goal.
“I thought he was busy,” D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen said of Espindola. “I thought he trusted his teammates more than last game.”
Still, D.C. let the win slip away even though Olsen said he suspected the team “quadrupled” its scoring opportunities compared with its previous two games. United, which lost midfielder Luis Silva in the first half to an apparent ankle injury (“I don’t think it’s a day or two,” Olsen said of the injury), just couldn’t overcome breakdowns in the back third.
Kitchen’s goal, which gave United a 2-1 lead in the 73rd minute, came during a bizarre sequence of events. Captain Bobby Boswell had missed two shots on goal, with the ball being kicked back and forth in front of the net for a few seconds, before the young midfielder put a rebound into the center of the net.
“It’s kind of a blur to be honest,” Kitchen said of the goal. “As a soccer player, you just have to read the game and see what the game needs.”
But Chicago’s Quincy Amarikwa sucked the energy out of the crowd in the 82nd minute, beating Hamid with a stifling line drive from about five yards out. Minutes later, the drenched crowd at RFK walked out of the stadium optimistic and dissapointed, all at the same time.
“It’s not easy to get a win around here. I certainly think we did enough to get the win. It’s disappointing to get the draw,” Olsen said. “But if I could step out, away from that, it’s a step forward.”