D.C. United beat Toronto FC 3-1 at BMO Field thanks to an eventful first half, but results elsewhere kept them below the playoff line and ended their 2021 season.
In a reversal from Decision Day 2020 — where results fell United’s way only for them to fall flat with a playoff spot on the line — Los Capitalinos took care of business only to see the New York Red Bulls keep ahold of the final playoff spot by virtue of a 1-1 draw at Nashville SC.
What had been a promising 2021 season under new manager Hernan Losada is now over.
United started the day brightly, with Ola Kamara hitting the crossbar in the fourth minute from open play. Set pieces would define the first half, though. Birnbaum would open the scoring in the 13th minute, overpowering Toronto keeper Quentin Westberg with a six-yard header off Julian Gressel’s corner kick.
Kamara nearly doubled the lead minutes later, only to see Jonathan Osorio clear one shot off the line — and I mean that ball was halfway over the line into the goal — and Westberg save another over the bar in rapid succession. Classic 2021 D.C. United bad luck would strike, as the Reds cleared the ensuing corner and countered at speed. Richie Laryea’s 24-yard blast turned what would have been a two-goal deficit into a tie game.
It would last 12 minutes. Andy Najar spotted a gap in the host’s back line and put the ball into the path of the Kamara’s run in behind. He touched the ball around the onrushing Wesberg, who could do nothing but clean out the Norwegian striker. Kamara sent Wesberg the wrong way on the spot kick, giving the lead back to United.
The best goal of the half came six minutes later through a training-ground set piece. Gressel played a corner short to Paul Arriola, running back from the goal line. After pulling both defenders up, Arriola’s backheel put Gressel into space. He beat one man and rifled a shot. But it was Ola Kamara’s own backheel deflection to the far post that put it into the net.
His second of the night also gave Kamara the lead in the MLS Golden Boot race.
Elsewhere in the league, Orlando had held Montreal scoreless in Quebec, while Nashville and the Red Bulls were square at 1 in the Music City, putting the Black-and-Red one NSC goal away from a playoff spot.
Halftime saw Andy Najar make way for Chris Odoi-Atsem as United shifted from their usual 353 to a 442. Meanwhile, Toronto made a triple sub, brining on former D.C. player Nick DeLeon.
Halftime sub Dom Dwyer let United off the hook, sending his close-range header over the bar minutes after the break. Nigel Robertha would return the favor at the hour mark, intercepting a Westberg pass and dribbling across the box, spurning an open Kamara, only to send his shot directly into the defender, ending the danger.
Felipe saw the game’s first yellow four minutes later for persistent infringement after a few hard, late tackles.
The game immediately opened up with chances coming in both directions. Robertha turned Michael Bradley — who had moved to center back during the halftime shuffle — and his curling shot forced a good save from Westberg. Toronto immediately came down the field with DeLeon putting his shot just over the cross bar from 20+ yards.
After Adrien Perez came in for Paul Arriola, Kamara almost finished his hat trick, but an intervention from Kemar Lawrence and a big Westberg denied him. Nick DeLeon had two bites at the apple moments later but couldn’t beat Hamid and the D.C. defense.
United brought on Donovan Pines and Junior Moreno for Julian Gressel and Felipe, moving into a 352 to eat up crosses and clog up the midfield some for the closing stages. Nevertheless, a progressive pass almost immediately got in to Dwyer at the 18, but the former Orlando and Kansas City player sent his shot well wide.
Following a Dwyer yellow card for a frustrated shove on Steven Birnbaum behind the play, Robertha put a great transition cross onto Perez’s head, but the shot went right to Westberg. Pines took a yellow card breaking up TFC’s immediate counterattack.
Ramon Abila replaced an apparently injured Robertha in the 85th minute, helping to defend a Toronto free kick.
Kamara had another chance to score his third right at 90-minutes, but Kemar Lawrence sold out to block the shot from United’s leading scorer. Just before the final whistle, TFC’s Justin Morrow subbed out for the last time in his career, starting his retirement after a career as one of MLS’s all-time best left backs.
Compounding the disappointment for D.C. and Kamara, a second-half strike from NYCFC’s Taty Castellanos against the Philadelphia Union robbed United’s #9 of the Golden Boot, tying him on goals scored and claiming the award via the assists tiebreaker.
The Black-and-Red now enter the three-month offseason looking to replenish a roster that has been battered in this compressed season and build on the optimism that returned to Audi Field in 2021.