United's Dejan Jakovic, left, tries to catch Thierry Henry of the Red Bulls. Henry scored twice in a 4-0 win at RFK Stadium. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

D.C. United has made considerable strides in regaining respectability this season, but on Thursday night, the club learned the lengths it will need to go to become an MLS Cup contender.

The New York Red Bulls commandeered the match at the start with a stylish display and were scarcely threatened in a 4-0 victory before 18,052 at RFK Stadium — United’s worst setback at home since the 2005 playoffs and its most lopsided regular season loss in Washington in 11 years.

“We pretty much got outworked, outplayed and embarrassed,” defender Dejan Jakovic said. “It’s a long season and we’ve got to forget about this.”

Not an easy task after allowing French legend Thierry Henry to score twice in the first half, Joel Lindpere to convert on a late counterattack and Juan Agudelo, a rising U.S. national team star, to strike a spectacular volley in the waning moments.

Five days after a 3-0 victory at Toronto, United (2-3-1) suffered its worst home loss to the archrival Red Bulls (3-1-2) in 29 regular season meetings.

“This is a process, and right now, they’re a better team than we are,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “Are they 4-0 better than us? I don’t think so, but on the night, I suppose they were.”

United was on the defensive from the opening moments, and despite being within two goals until the desperate stages, it labored to mount a consistent attack. The Red Bulls moved the ball with rhythm and precision and exploited soft spots in United’s midfield and defense.

Branko Boskovic, who entered at halftime, was United’s lone inspiration, testing the Red Bulls three times in the last 20 minutes.

“They made us look not too good,” forward Josh Wolff said. “They made some plays that really counted. We’ve got to be better in a lot of areas.”

Slick winger Dane Richards and versatile defender Jan Gunnar Solli forged a menacing combination on the Red Bulls’ right flank. In the 12th minute, the pressure translated into a lead on a fluid sequence launched from their end.

Rafael Marquez, a Mexican World Cup defender, sent the ball to Richards, who touched it wide to the overlapping Solli for a clear run on the wing. The Norwegian served an exquisite cross into the heart of the penalty area. Henry found a pocket of space and nodded a 10-yarder over Bill Hamid.

United generated quality opportunities midway through the half. Wolff set up Charlie Davies, but MLS’s leading scorer was too heavy with his touch into the box and spun a shot wide. Davies, who departed after 60 minutes, was held scoreless for the first time in five appearances.

New York doubled the lead in the 38th after Richards and Solli exploited United’s left side again. On a give and go, Solli collected Richards’s one-touch pass, muscled past Marc Burch to reach the end line and crossed into the six-yard box. Perry Kitchen, retreating to protect the near post, poked it into the path of the incoming Henry, who beat the charging Hamid.

It was so easy, the Red Bulls barely celebrated. Henry did tuck the ball under his jersey, as if to give birth to another goal.

“He’s smart, he knows how to find gaps and make space for himself,” Kitchen said of Henry, the former Arsenal and Barcelona star, who on Saturday scored his first goal of the season.

Boskovic’s entrance provided a boost in the second half, but United lacked a decisive pass and finishing touch. After Boskovic’s 30-yard free kick struck the crossbar, Lindpere capitalized on United’s undermanned back line in the 76th minute, finishing a 45-yard run with a delicious cutback on Clyde Simms and a low strike into the near corner.

Five minutes later, Henry departed to respectful applause.

New York keeper Bouna Coundoul thwarted Boskovic and Dejan Jakovic, and Boskovic hit the right post. Agudelo, an 18-year-old forward, then capped the rout by holding off two defenders, flicking the ball to himself and crashing a searing volley past Hamid.

“It’s a tough night for us,” Olsen said. “We fouled up a couple plays that cost us. They’re a good team and if you make mistakes, they have guys who know how to punish you.”

United Notes: The club is off this weekend and will host the New England Revolution in a U.S. Open Cup qualifier Tuesday at Maryland SoccerPlex.

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