D.C. United left a lot of plays on the field tonight in a 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls. It was the first match of a two-legged playoff series that will see United travel to New Jersey on Wednesday.
United took the lead in the 61st minute when a cross from Chris Korb was deflected into the New York goal by Roy Miller, a player who we all hope to see starting the next leg. United's lead didn't last long though, as Bill Hamid tipped a ball from Heath Pearce just over the line while under pressure.
The entire season comes down to Wednesday's match now. And even though United could be going to New York with a lead in the aggregate goals series (a significant lead even), there's no reason to believe that the season is over. United was the better team for the majority of this match. Even when playing down a man, United was getting good chances and good looks. The finishing wasn't quite there, but neither was the luck, and neither was the officiating. Several close calls went against United. And although we can't blame the referees for a game that could have been won without their input, its hard to see United getting so unfortunate twice in a row.
The D.C. United players certainly made their share of mistakes though. Chris Pontius' penalty kick attempt was waist high and far from the post, giving Luis Robles about as simple a PK save as a keeper can make. Bill Hamid should have punched the ball that he instead tried to tip instead (although Hamid told me that he was bumped by Markus Holgersson as he went up for it).
And most of all, Andy Najar made a terrible decision that was out-of-character for the normally calm and soft-spoken teenager. The talk in the locker room after the match was that Najar didn't mean any malice when throwing the ball towards the referee. Dejan Jakovic even told me that Najar wasn't aiming at Jair Marrufo when he tossed the ball. Najar said it was an accident. That isn't really what it looked like, but I guess we should take him at his word?
In the post-game press conference, Ben Olsen said "He's a young kid, he made a young mistake." This brought back a memory for me of another player who used to wear No. 14 for United, who similarly was tossed out of a game a few years ago for throwing the ball at somebody for no reason.
The past two years, we've spent a lot of time using the term "Olsen's Army" to describe United. This hard-working aggressive team was built in Olsen's image, and we've always meant that in a good way. Well, this was the first time that the team actually took on the identity of its coach in a bad way. Najar's emotions prevailed, just as Olsen's had so many times during his playing days.
Now that Olsen is the coach though, he'll have a chance to make things right. "We'll adjust. It's what we've been doing all year," Olsen said. And he's right. Throughout the entirety of the 2012 season, Olsen has always managed to make brilliant adjustments and impactful substitutions in the second half. This time, the second half starts at 8:00 PM on Wednesday night.
"There's a certain spriting about this team I believe in," Olsen said. "And I hope that going forward we can turn some heads." Olsen was very confident that United can still win this season. So are his players, and so am I. United was the better team for the majority of tonight's match, and they can be the better team again. "We did so many things well and we didn't get the result we wanted," the coach said.
If United can do the same things well again, the result might be what they want the next time around.