The cards were stacked heavily against D.C. United as they faced off against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Black-and-Red only had 15 players in their squad thanks to international absences and an injury bug currently ravaging the team. One of four substitutes was Kevin Ellis, who was officially added to the team yesterday, and surely had little time to get to know names of everyone on the team, let alone get acquainted on the field with his new teammates.
And Yankee Stadium has never been kind to D.C., a stadium which had yielded zero points for United in three previous trips.
However, instead of capitulating or feeling bad for themselves, United took a lead in the second half from Steven Birnbaum, before conceding a late goal to David Villa, walking away with a hard-earned point in a 1-1 draw that might reap benefits down the road.
“It’s a great point,” head coach Ben Olsen told reporters after the game, in which United inched closer to the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, five points behind the Montreal Impact with two games in hand.
United were out-shot 31-2 over the course of 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon. Wayne Rooney had a bicycle attempt go wide in the 2nd minute, and it wasn’t until Birnbaum’s header in the 58th minute that United would register another attempt, their last of the game.
In the meantime, their own goal was under a barrage of attacks, most of which were thwarted by Bill Hamid and his backline, which featured a group of four players that had not played together this season.
“I think it feels a bit like a loss conceding the late goal,” Rooney said after the game. “But the defense was brilliant tonight, and a point away against a good team is a good point.”
Due to all the absences, which numbered 13 in total, United started their trio of homegrowns in Chris Durkin, and the seldom-used Ian Harkes and Jalen Robinson. Harkes was asked to play out wide on the right in midfield, a position he isn’t accustomed to playing. Robinson is usually a center back, but played as a right back, while Ulises Segura was played as the left midfielder, also not his usual role.
Ellis was introduced for Harkes late on, as United tried to dig in for a most unlikely three points. It wasn’t to be with Villa’s free kick in the 86th minute, but the performance was just about all Olsen could ask for out of his rag-tag group of players.
“A lot of guys [were played] out of position, a lot of players [did] a little bit extra throughout the game to find a way to get something out of this,” said Olsen.
“I thought it was one of those where we’d steal all three [points],” added Olsen. “On these days, can you find something out of it through grit and work rate? That’s what I asked, and that’s what they gave me, so I’m very proud of the group.”
On the postage stamp-sized field at Yankee Stadium, United struggled throughout the game to get a foothold on proceedings, as evident by their lack of chances throughout. But there wasn’t a sense of frustration, an agitation that could have cost United more. Instead, they rallied against the odds, just missing out on three points that would have likely put them in the driver’s seat for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“It doesn’t really feel like a soccer match. You’re walking out in a baseball stadium. It’s a tough environment,” Hamid told B&RU in the locker room. “We had a gameplan, we were missing players, the field is poor, and we made the most of it.”
With eight games remaining in the season now, United is afforded the chance to make up the ground in the playoff race with seven consecutive games at home. Visits from the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, NYCFC, and Toronto FC will provide stiff challenges, but after last week’s win over Atlanta United, and the point in the Bronx, United will feel like they can make the most of those seven games.
“Let’s hope for seven wins,” Hamid said of the upcoming stretch.