At the end of two odd hours Saturday, United was left with a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls in front of 17,556 at RFK Stadium — the first of two legs in an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
After Chris Pontius missed a first-half penalty kick, United went ahead on New York defender Roy Miller’s misguided clearance in the 61st minute. D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid returned the favor four minutes later after getting bumped inside the six-yard box.
United was short-handed for the last 20 minutes after Andy Najar, a 19-year-old right back, flung the ball at referee Jair Marrufo and was ejected. He will miss Game 2 in the total-goals series Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena. If the teams tie again, 30 minutes of overtime and possibly a penalty-kick tiebreaker would follow immediately.
“They are a beatable team, here or there,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “We can beat this team. And there is a great opportunity for us to go to New York and try to do that.”
It will be difficult for these longtime rivals to match the drama that unfolded at RFK. The backdrop stirred memories of United’s past postseason glory: a cool autumn evening, an energized crowd decked almost entirely in black, a loathed opponent and an expectancy that had the venerable building buzzing before kickoff.
United crackled with energy and, in the 32nd minute, was awarded a penalty kick when Branko Boskovic lifted a cross that struck defender Connor Lade in the arm.
With Dwayne De Rosario absent, Pontius took the penalty against Luis Robles, a 2007 United draft pick who opted for the European circuit before signing with New York this summer. Pontius targeted the left side and delivered a low shot with pace but failed to place it properly, allowing the correctly guessing Robles to intervene.
Hamid wasn’t severely tested until the 60th minute, thwarting Joel Lindpere’s left-side rush.
A minute later, United went ahead. Miller had entered at halftime for Rafael Marquez (calf tightness) and was marking Nick DeLeon in the penalty area when Chris Korb swung in a cross. Miller’s attempt to volley out of danger failed miserably and he drilled it past Robles.
The lead was short-lived. Thierry Henry lofted a corner kick to the back post. As Heath Pearce floated a header along the goal line, New York’s Markus Holgersson appeared to bump Hamid, who awkwardly attempted to catch it as he was falling. He never had firm control and the ball dropped just over the line.
“He knew I was about to jump,” Hamid said. “He decided to bump me right before my jump. I thought it was going to be a clear call.”
Hamid also accepted some blame, saying, “The smartest decision would’ve been to punch it when I felt the bump.”
The madness continued in the 71st minute when Najar was whistled for a foul from behind and given a yellow card. Upset with the call, he hurled the ball at Marrufo and received a second card, resulting in an ejection, automatic one-game suspension and possibly an extended penalty should United advance.
“It wasn’t my intention to hit the referee,” he said through an interpreter. “I just threw the ball without looking and he was there.”
Said Olsen: “He’s a young kid. He made a young mistake.”
Despite the disadvantage, United threatened to go ahead, but Robles blocked Pontius’s bid inside the six-yard box. Later, United’s plea for an illegal back pass was ignored by Marrufo.
Said Pontius: “I’d like to see what it would look like 11 versus 11 the whole game.”
Tying at home in a two-game series is often regarded as a loss, but United remained upbeat about its chances.
“There’s still 90 minutes to go,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “Our heads are up.”