D.C. United had everything they wanted at their disposal for Thursday night’s MLS knockout round game against the Columbus Crew. On the back of a 10 game unbeaten streak, United were hosting the Crew at Audi Field, which had quickly become a fortress for the Black-and-Red. United also had all their key players healthy, and even got an early lead to boot.
None of that mattered in the end though, as United suffered the unbearable pain of losing at home in penalty kicks, after the teams played out to a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes. Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta had their efforts saved by Zack Steffen, and Nick DeLeon, who had become United’s savior in extra time, lifted his spot kick over the goal with a chance to extend the shootout.
“PKs are for the birds. Especially when you lose them,” United Head Coach Ben Olsen opined after the game, the second time in a row United has failed to advance at home in a knockout round game.
Frederic Brillant gave United a lead in the first half. United had not lost a game at home in which they scored first in 2018, and only dropped points in September’s wild 3-3 draw against the New York Red Bulls.
However, that lead didn’t even last until the break, as Federico Higuain, Columbus’ Argentine number 10, scrambled home an equalizer. In the first half of extra time, Higuain steered a header past Bill Hamid for the lead.
DeLeon’s heroics saved United’s season temporarily in the 116th minute, a thumping finish that sent the sellout crowd at Audi Field into delirium. But that goal just delayed the pain, as the Crew advanced 3-2 on penalties.
“No one said a word in that locker room. They’re gutted,” Olsen added in his post game press conference.
Columbus, for their part, seemed to stymie what had worked best for United over the past couple of months. Both Rooney and Acosta had subpar games, at least in comparison to the standard they’ve set since July. Although Acosta had the cross that led to Brillant’s opener, it was a mistake from Steffen that allowed the center back to head home his first goal for the Black-and-Red.
The Crew hadn’t faced this new look United, with both meeting this season coming by April 14th. But Columbus seemed prepared, and took Rooney and Acosta out of their game.
“You take two high caliber players out of the game, and it helps your chances to win,” Crew Head Coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters after the game.
After falling behind in the first extra time half, DeLeon brought life back to the fortress at Buzzard Point. Rooney’s free kick into the box aimed at Steven Birnbaum wasn’t cleared well by Columbus. DeLeon, who had come on as a sub in the second half, brought the ball down, and then smashed a half volley that snuck in after striking the post.
The noise from the crowd was deafening, and it seemed that the fortune on the night just might have eased back in United’s favor.
“That was a special moment when he scored the goal,” Russell Canouse said in the locker room after the game, about DeLeon’s second ever playoff goal. “We don’t go to penalty kicks without Nick.”
Once in the shootout though, Columbus were quickly back in charge. Higuain expertly dispatched his penalty, but Steffen, who won a penalty shootout last year against Atlanta United by making two saves, expertly stopped Rooney.
Rooney said after the game that he knew of Steffen’s history with shootouts, but that it didn’t affect where he was going to go.
“I knew yesterday, if the game went to penalties, where I was going to hit my penalty,” Rooney said in response to a question from B&RU. “He’s made a good save. I didn’t catch it as clean as I would have liked, but credit to the goalkeeper.”
A save by Bill Hamid on Gyasi Zardes got United back into the shootout, before Acosta couldn’t find a way past Steffen from 12 yards out. Patrick Mullins hit the woodwork with a chance to win it, giving DeLeon an opportunity to continue his heroics.
Instead, DeLeon sent his shot into the Chico Stand, ending United’s season prematurely.
“I shanked it. I got underneath it. I don’t know what else to say,” the dejected right back told reporters in the locker room after the game.
For another couple of days, this result will hurt. United had everything going for them coming into the game, and there was real belief that the team could make a run in the playoffs this year.
It wasn’t to be, but the framework for United to be successful going forward is all there. Something United can recognize, even through the pain of Thursday’s exit of the playoffs.
“It was a hell of a run. Don’t let this spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation for Audi Field, and the next generation of D.C. United,” said Olsen.
“I’m proud of them for doing that. They got this city interested again in soccer, our team, and I look forward to getting back here next year.”