D.C. United has a strange schedule in 2018, and tonight’s 1-1 draw at Orlando City certainly gave it an unusual start. United grabbed a first half lead through Yamil Asad, but two VAR decisions from referee Fotis Bazakos — both in United’s favor — infuriated the home side, who lost midfielder PC to a red card just before halftime. The Black-and-Red couldn’t make a good situation pay off, though, conceding a stoppage time equalizer to Stefano Pinho.
United’s first lineup of 2018 contained few surprises. With potential starters Luciano Acosta (suspension), Taylor Kemp, and Russell Canouse (both injured) unavailable, D.C. opted for the 4141 formation that they played throughout the preseason. David Ousted, chosen ahead of Steve Clark in goal, was one of no fewer than seven United players making their debuts for the Black-and-Red. With Ben Olsen suspended for an incident after last season’s finale, Chad Ashton stood in as head coach on the sidelines.
The visitors started brightly, with high pressure leading to Zoltan Stieber (standing in for Acosta as United’s attacking midfielder) stripping rookie Cam Lindley deep in Orlando’s half. D.C. had a 4v2 opportunity with Orlando scrambling, but Ulises Segura should have chosen to pass rather than shoot. His error was compounded by a slip, letting a great opportunity go by in the opening 70 seconds.
After Orlando pushed back with some assured possession soccer, United got the game’s first good look in the 19th minute. Asad’s quick free kick freed Darren Mattocks down the wing, where he skinned Amro Tarek before trying to cross. The ball struck Will Johnson and was cleared, with Mattocks shouting for a penalty kick. Bazakos turned down his pleas, but via VAR took a second look.
After a short delay, Bazakos awarded the penalty, but Mattocks couldn’t put it past Joe Bendik, whose save pushed the ball up off the crossbar and down onto the post. The ball then bounded down off of Bendik, nearly bouncing over the goalline anyway, but it never quite made it in, allowing Orlando to escape.
United was not deterred. Asad, who looked eager to prove his worth, won a foul along the left flank, drawing a yellow card from Cam Lindley in the process. Asad dusted himself off and whipped in a perfect in-swinging free kick at the back post. Mattocks and Steve Birnbaum both went inches from glancing it past Bendik, but their presence was enough to freeze him on his line, and the ball drifted in to give D.C. a 32nd minute lead.
VAR will surely be a hot topic after PC was controversially sent off in the 41st minute. PC rose above Asad to challenge for a header, but from the contact appeared to swing his arm while off-balance, catching Asad in the head. Bazakos initially gave a yellow card, but after nearly a minute he was instead sent to the sideline monitor. It didn’t take him long to make his choice from there, as Bazakos changed his initial decision to a straight red card.
Despite that, it was Orlando who seemed to end the half on the rise, as the game’s frenetic pace saw the Lions end up producing a few chances to get forward and put crosses in towards rookie Chris Mueller, functioning as a lone forward after PC’s ejection.
The frenetic tempo continued into the second half, with United getting the first two looks. After starting the move, Segura found a pocket of space to size up a 25 yard shot, striking a blistering effort that Bendik barely tipped out for a corner. Stieber’s back post delivery then picked out Birnbaum, but he could only head the ball wide.
Orlando had an instant response, as they forced a turnover along the endline to find Justin Meram. Meram danced along the top of the box before dishing wide right to Mueller, who crushed a shot wide of Ousted’s left-hand post.
The Lions kept hammering away despite playing with ten. A cross from Mohamed El-Munir floated to the back post, where Yoshimar Yotun was lurking unmarked. Yotun’s one-timer from an angle beat Ousted, but Frederic Brillant was in position to steer the ball away, protecting a narrow lead.
At the hour mark, Ashton brought Ian Harkes in for Stieber in an effort to calm the track-meet game that Orlando was forcing on United, but Orlando — to their credit — was working extraordinarily hard despite having just ten men. Orlando’s pressure was unrelenting, and United was forced into a second defensive sub, giving homegrown player Chris Durkin his MLS debut in the 73rd minute. United moved into a 4231, with Durkin joining Junior Moreno in defensive midfield and Segura moving to the left side.
After an endless spell of defending, United finally broke out in the 78th minute. With Orlando having numbers up, a pass to Mattocks meant that one touch sent the Jamaican striker in behind everyone, save for Bendik. However, just as he was about to shoot, defender Mohamed El-Munir made a near-miraculous recovery tackle, forcing United to settle for a corner.
United dropped deeper and deeper as the seconds ticked away, with the formation change helping to slow Orlando down, particularly when it came to containing the ever-dangerous Meram.
Sadly, those seconds didn’t tick away fast enough. Deep into stoppage time, Orlando was pushed up so high that center back Jonathan Spector was able to play a give-and-go with Meram. Segura had tracked Spector, but lost him at a critical moment, letting the former USMNT defender pick out a small window to tee up substitute Stefano Pinho, whose low side-footer left Ousted with no chance to prevent an equalizer that the Lions fully deserved.
United will have a full week to pick themselves up and recover from a disappointing outcome. The Black-and-Red will travel south once again next week, facing Atlanta United on Sunday, March 11.