D.C. United looked down and out, as the New York Red Bulls held a deserved 2-0 lead late in the game. Luis Robles had barely been tested, and it looked for all the world like the Black-and-Red were in danger of falling further behind in the playoff race. However, an incredible late show saw Steve Birnbaum - playing forward at the time -score in the 89th minute before Lamar Neagle scored a 95th minute equalizer, handing United an unlikely 2-2 draw. Gonzalo Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips scored for the Red Bulls.
Ben Olsen made three changes to the side that fell 3-2 at NYCFC ten days ago. Steve Birnbaum returned from US national team duty to retake his starting role from Jalen Robinson, while Taylor Kemp came back from injury to step in at left back. The other change was enforced, as Luciano Acosta was suspended due to yellow card accumulation. With Jared Jeffrey unavailable due to a concussion, Nick DeLeon came in for just his second start in the last six matches.
Jesse Marsch had to make a change of his own in the opening moments. Center back Ronald Zubar went down with what ESPN reported was a hamstring pull inside of two minutes. After very briefly attempting to play through it, Zubar was substituted, with Damien Perrinelle taking his spot on the back line.
Sean Davis and Patrick Mullins both had half-chances that went wrong in the 15th minute before a terrible backward header from Perrinelle nearly gave Mullins a sitter in the 21st minute. Robles was very fast off his line, coming out to slide-tackle Mullins and avert the danger. Both players seemed to pick up slight knocks from the collision, but continued on. In the moments that followed, United won a free kick that was teed up for Vincent, whose low rocket beat the NYRB wall only to be denied by a superb block from Duvall.
Unfortunately for United, the Red Bulls took the lead via a bit of good fortune in the 35th minute. Patrick Nyarko tried to carry the ball out of pressure, only for Duvall to strip him of the ball. Nyarko seemed to feel he was fouled, but while he half-heartedly protested Duvall passed to Sacha Kljestan inside the box. Kljestan took the ball to the endline and clipped the ball into basically a mosh pit in the goal mouth. The ball pinballed around before popping up perfectly for Gonzalo Veron, who simply stooped to head the ball through the crowd from two yards out.
United pushed back in the 39th minute, with Nick DeLeon using some clever footwork to open up space to fire in a cross. Robles dove out to claim inches before Mullins could arrive at the near post. Robles and Mullins collided again, this time with Robles needing attention from the trainer to a possible head injury. However, the goalkeeper - who has 134 straight MLS starts to his name - carried on after a minute or so.
Just before halftime, both teams came close to scoring. A long spell of possession looked promising for United, only for DeLeon to badly overhit a cross with runners in good spots. That was followed by the Red Bulls being more alert from a throw-in along the left, with Kemar Lawrence quickly getting the ball back in play to Daniel Royer. Kljestan shouted for the ball in space, with Royer delivering. Kljestan took a touch to shake off Kemp and fired past Hamid from 13 yards, only for the ball to thump off the post and away to safety.
United probably should have leveled the score in the 48th minute from a counter-attack. Bill Hamid strongly punched a corner kick away, and Sam ended up bursting into the clear behind the Red Bulls defense. With three defenders collapsing and Robles coming off his line, Sam seemed to stall at a crucial moment before trying to slot the ball under his former teammate. Robles made a big save to deny the United winger, and while Mullins got to the rebound first, his shot was acrobatically blocked by Perrinelle.
Royer was denied by a glorious block by Kemp at the back post, as Kljestan appeared to pick out the Austrian for a sure goal with a delicate cross in the 52nd minute.
The Red Bulls got themselves the second goal just three minutes later. Some clever movement off the ball dragged Boswell inside just as Wright-Phillips peeled to the right. Royer picked out the Golden Boot contender, who appeared to freeze Hamid before ripping a powerful shot past United’s goalkeeper at his near post.
It was certainly not Hamid’s finest hour, though he did partially make up for it with a splendid low save in the 57th minute from a similar opportunity from Wright-Phillips as the Red Bulls sensed a chance to bury the game. United replied from the bench, with Julian Buescher and Lamar Neagle coming in for Vincent and Sam, respectively.
There was more bad news for United to come, as Sean Franklin went down injured well behind the play in the 62nd minute. After some brief treatment, it was clear that he could not continue, forcing Olsen to use his final sub. Rather than rolling the dice on a more attacking sub, Olsen curiously brought Luke Mishu in for a straight swap.
United pushed sporadically for a goal to give them life, but Kljestan ended up having the next good chance in the 74th minute. He was a bit lucky to have the ball pop to him from Buescher, but the one-two combination he had with Wright-Phillips was superb. Kljestan flicked the ball past Hamid, only for it to hit the foot of the post and bounce out of his reach on the rebound.
Wright-Phillips then tagged an inch-perfect shot for the far post a minute later, but was denied by Hamid, who laid out at full stretch to tip what looked like a sure goal wide. As United threw numbers forward, the Red Bulls kept looking dangerous on the break. In the 80th minute, a turnover saw Wright-Phillips in space on the left, sliding the ball to Kljestan. Kljestan one-touched the ball to Royer in a good spot, but the Austrian fired his shot a yard over the crossbar.
Despite the subs adding some energy, the scoreline allowed the Red Bulls to sit in and stay organized, and United’s attacks repeatedly broke down on the edge of the attacking third. A half-cleared corner kick in the 86th minute fell for Marcelo Sarvas, but his shot into the stands seemed to sum up United’s attacks up to that point.
If the attacking play wasn’t particularly elegant, it was at least persistent, and United got themselves on the board with sheer effort. United moved to a back three, sending Birnbaum up as a target forward, and the rustic move paid off in the 89th minute. Nyarko’s cross from the left wing found Birnbaum at the back post, where the stand-in forward knocked the ball down towards Mullins. The ball pinged around to DeLeon, who squared to Birnbaum. His first shot attempt was blocked, but the ball came back to the USMNT defender, who managed to slot a precise low shot through traffic and in to give United life.
Kemp nearly gave the game away,, though, as he misjudged the bounce of a 93rd minute long ball. Wright-Phillips bumped him out of the way before squaring to Sal Zizzo, whose shot ramped up off of Marcelo and looped over Hamid. Somehow, Hamid managed to scramble back and claw the ball away, conceding a corner kick rather than the killer third goal.
Hamid’s saves ended up looming large. United nearly got their second late goal in the 94th minute, as Neagle’s chip from the left side of the box was touched to Buescher by Collin. Buescher didn’t take the cleanest touch, but the ball sat up perfectly for Mullins, who ripped a volley towards the upper corner. Robles produced a stellar save to prevent a goal, colliding with the post in the process.
One corner kick became another, and in the 95th minute - with Hamid joining what looked like the last attack of the game - United astonishingly drew level. Buescher aimed his corner towards Birnbaum and Hamid at the back post, where Birnbaum managed to beat three men and Hamid to the ball. He headed the ball back across goal to Mishu, whose awkward shot rolled across goal, past Robles, and onto the foot of the far post. Neagle, somehow, was all alone in yards of space on the doorstep to knee the ball over the line, giving United their most unlikely point of the season and producing a reaction like this:
Full time, and heavy booing from the home crowd, came a minute later. United clinched the 2016 Atlantic Cup with their late goals, but will be far more happy to pick up a point that they sorely needed. The comeback was the first time ever that the Red Bulls squandered a two-goal lead at Red Bull Arena, having won 45 straight in that scenario.