Make no mistake: D.C. United's 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls was not like the Black-and-Red's last road playoff game, in which a horrendous call was the platform from which Houston went on to win the game. Today at Red Bull Arena, the same team who has brought us the "That's So Metro" and "Metro Playoff Failure" jokes defied all the stereotypes and dominated United over the final hour of the match. MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips opened the scoring as the first half was winding down, and Peguy Luyindula produced a crucial second goal in the 73rd minute as United struggled to keep up.
It may end up forgotten due to the poor play that followed, but United started the game well enough. More than once, high pressure from DCU attackers forced the Red Bulls into turnovers or aimless long balls. However, after a tentative opening ten minutes, NYRB started to get into the game thanks to their ability to use the entire width of the field. United was complicit, however, due to some very sloppy turnovers.
There were also decision-making issues. The signs were there even during United's decent start: Fabian Espindola did very well to strip Dax McCarty of the ball, but rather than wait to be joined by teammates, he rashly attempted a shot from about 40 yards away that ended up several yards wide and meekly bouncing over the endline for a goal kick.
Nonetheless, United will rue missing the game's first chance. Nick DeLeon - who was probably the best of United's starting attackers on the night - charged into acres of space down the right wing in the 20th minute. His low cross wasn't particularly accurate, but Jamison Olave made his only mistake of the night in missing his clearance. However, Espindola was not expecting Olave to whiff on the ball, and had he been alert he surely would have side-footed home. Instead, the cross struck him and then bounded straight to Luis Robles for an easy save.
DeLeon and Espindola would be involved again five minutes later, as the Argentine's crossfield ball was inch-perfect for the Louisville product. DeLeon's first-time pass teed up Davy Arnaud, but under pressure the veteran midfielder's low bid was too close to Robles to sneak into the goal. United had another burst of attacking play in the moments that followed, but Chris Pontius could only force Robles into a routine save from 20 yards.
It was around this point of the match that the Red Bulls took charge. Luyindula really should have scored in the 31st minute after running into the path of a poor McCarty shot, but his attempt to deflect the ball in flashed across goal and wide. United would have been particularly upset to concede, as Steve Birnbaum was off the field due to what was reported as a shoe malfunction that required a change.
Wright-Phillips poked a 34th minute shot wide from a decent position, and he was caught only a step offside in the 37th minute while chasing Thierry Henry's through ball. BWP was at it again in under 60 seconds, as referee Hilario Grajeda swallowed his whistle on what looked like a foul on Espindola upfield. Fortunately for United, Wright-Phillips shot over the bar.
The good fortune would end soon thereafter. In the 39th minute, Taylor Kemp's diagonal pass looked very promising, but Olave made a heroic tackle to prevent Pontius from getting to what would have been a sitter. The play broke up the field, and it became the opening goal.
Wright-Phillips helped spark the play by checking back to help keep possession near midfield before finding Henry, who in turn sprayed the ball out to the right for Lloyd Sam. Henry then took advantage of what looked like a miscommunication between Arnaud and Perry Kitchen, knifing into the box. Sam spotted the run, and Henry - after taking a touch - backheeled the ball across goal for Wright-Phillips to bury. Luyindula deserved plenty of credit as well, as his dummy on the backheel effectively shielded Chris Korb from having any hope of making a play on the ball.
United's start to the second half looked awfully similar to the game's opening minutes, but the home side didn't let the game slip away from them. Sam appeared to get away with a clear foul on Kemp in the 49th minute, which eventually required a superb tackle from Arnaud to fully end the threat.
United was still chasing the game, but the next real scoring chance fell to Espindola in the 59th minute. DeLeon's run on the dribble saw him nearly beat a crowd of Red Bulls, but he was tackled by Olave. The ball pinged off DeLeon and then Richard Eckersley before Espindola chested the ball down and hit a hard, dipping shot that ended up barely clearing the crossbar.
That was United's last look for a while, as the Red Bulls sensed the chance to expand their lead. Henry fired wide from outside the box, and Birnbaum showcased his positioning in saving the day after Sam was nearly put in behind for a breakaway.
Bill Hamid then delivered what has become his traditional double save at Red Bull Arena in the 67th minute. Roy Miller's chip in behind saw Wright-Phillips bring the ball down with a sublime first touch and pass to Sam, who then touched the ball wide before shooting back across goal. The ball was headed into the lower corner, but Hamid saved it at full stretch. The rebound fell to Wright-Phillips, but some scrambling from Chris Korb let Hamid get back to his feet in time to make a kick-save on the eventual follow-up shot.
Sadly, this didn't spark a real response from United, and the crucial second goal game six minutes later. A decoy run by McCarty opened up a huge channel down the middle, and both Henry and Luyindula spotted the gap. Luyindula took off down the middle, and Henry rewarded his run with a perfect ball over the top. In behind the defense, Luyindula slotted the ball between the advancing Hamid's legs to make it 2-0.
United had to feel fortunate not to fall further behind. Henry's corner kick in the 79th minute was met by McCarty, who arrived at full speed but sent his bullet header just wide with much of the goal gaping.
A minor controversy came in the 82nd minute, as Ambroise Oyongo - on the field for less than a minute at the time - went in two-footed on Sean Franklin. The tackle could have easily drawn a red card from Grajeda, but he opted to produce a yellow card instead.
United forced several more free kicks in wide spots in the late stages, but only one became a real chance. Chris Rolfe - making his first appearance since breaking his arm in early September - won a free kick out on the left wing, and Espindola's chip found its way to DeLeon. With Eddie Johnson in a wonderful position to score, DeLeon's attempt to lay the ball off to him was tipped away by a lunging Olave, who was strong throughout the match.
Robles was not given anything else to do, and if anything 2-0 might not fully reflect the gap in quality between the teams in this particular match. In the return leg November 8th, anything less than a shutout will likely end what has otherwise been a feel-good 2014 for the Black-and-Red.