HOUSTON — Something awful always happens to D.C. United here, be it an own goal, red card, series of injuries, critical missed call or just a downright miserable performance.
So wouldn’t you know, as Sunday’s match against the struggling Houston Dynamo entered stoppage time, another cataclysmic episode crashed down on United, resulting in a 1-0 defeat before 20,061 at BBVA Compass Stadium.
It was clear for most of the sticky evening that United, shorthanded and fatigued, was not going to extend its winning streak to five. But after surviving several scares, D.C. (11-6-4) looked like it was going to steal a point in a city where it is winless in 12 visits since 2006.
In the first of three additional minutes, though, left back Taylor Kemp headed the ball back into a precarious spot. Under pressure, rookie defender Steve Birnbaum let the ball bounce, perhaps expecting goalkeeper Bill Hamid to grab it. Hamid, however, remained back.
Chaos ensued. Birnbaum and Hamid bumped into one another pursuing the loose ball, allowing Omar Cummings to cross to Will Bruin for a simple tap-in.
“I’ll have to look at it [on video] again, but there were a few things on that play we could have done better,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “You can learn from it. Steve, who has been fantastic this year, will get better from it.”
Birnbaum, who replaced injured veteran Jeff Parke in June, explained: “I should have done better. Just a miscommunication. The noise got to us. I didn’t hear Bill, but Bill said [afterward] that he said something. Maybe I should have headed it the first time. It’s just a learning experience.”
With a victory, United could have claimed first in both the Eastern Conference and MLS’s overall standings — a remarkable turnaround after it won just three games last year. Instead, its all-time record in Houston fell to 0-11-1 with five goals scored and 24 conceded.
United was not as snappy in possession as it had been in recent weeks, slow to build the attack and lacking combination work. The defense was fine until the fateful end, allowing the Dynamo (6-11-4) to end an eight-game winless streak.
“We faded a little bit in the second half,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “We played well enough to get a point, but in these kind of games, it’s one play that can win it for you, and as you saw, one play can lose it for you.”
United was without starters Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb, who remained home with leg tightness. Veteran Lewis Neal started for DeLeon, who enjoyed a terrific performance Wednesday against Toronto FC. Kemp, who had played three minutes this season, made his seventh career start in place of Korb at left back.
United was hoping leading scorer Fabian Espindola, out since mid-June with a knee injury, would be ready for this trip. But after hinting the Argentine forward probably would travel, Olsen decided to save him for the visit to Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
D.C. had only six available substitutes, one fewer than the standard. Olsen’s two substitutions were teenagers.
While United tallied absences, the Dynamo welcomed DaMarcus Beasley, the four-time U.S. World Cup player who returned to MLS two weeks ago after 10 years abroad. Houston also introduced Honduran World Cup midfielder Luis Garrido.
With Beasley supporting Brad Davis on the flank, Houston employed the same left-side combination that U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann used in the World Cup group finale against Germany.
Houston initially attacked the other side, going after Kemp, who was forced to yank down Oscar Boniek Garcia from behind on the edge of the penalty area for a yellow card. Houston worked the same wing two minutes later, with Giles Barnes crossing to Bruin for an eight-yard header that skipped off the crossbar.
Amid Houston’s threats, United generated an appetizing opportunity. But on a clear overlapping run, Kemp was unsure of himself entering the box and failed to shoot before goalkeeper Tally Hall and a defender intervened.
Late in the half, after a terrible giveaway in midfield led to a Houston counterattack, Hamid made a right-footed save on Barnes bearing down on the right side.
Before the halftime whistle, Luis Silva howled in pain — and then anger at the game officials — after his side-volley in the box was interrupted by David Horst’s studs-up challenge.
After the break, Hamid was quick to cover the near corner on Davis’s 20-yard effort. Beasley chipped a tooth when kicked by Neal.
The match slogged along until Bruin’s late goal.
“That’s how it goes in Houston — too many times,” Olsen said.
Notes: Perry Kitchen exceeded the yellow card limit and will miss Saturday’s match. . . . While United heads home Monday, Hamid, Boswell and Sean Franklin will fly to Portland, Ore., ahead of Wednesday’s All-Star Game against Bayern Munich.