Long-time Atlantic Cup observers know to expect tension, drama, and controversy regardless of how good or bad D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls are. Some things never change: United saw star forward Fabian Espindola wrongly sent off by referee Mark Geiger in the 32nd minute, and gamely held on playing 10v11 for nearly an hour before winger Lloyd Sam finally made the breakthrough in the 90th minute for NYRB to win 1-0.
From the start, the Red Bulls had an advantage in possession, but couldn't carve out clear looks. It required United to virtually hand them their first real shooting opportunity. A 12th minute giveaway by Davy Arnaud was compounded by a rushed clearance by Bobby Boswell. Boswell's attempt hit Peguy Luyindula, who immediately slotted MLS Golden Boot leader Bradley Wright-Phillips through on goal. Sean Franklin sprinted back to save the day, however, poking the ball away before Wright-Phillips could shoot.
Another turnover gave the Red Bulls a look in the 30th minute. David Estrada's crossfield ball was too easy to read for Henry, who intercepted it with ease and charged into the middle. Henry sprayed the ball wide to Luyindula on the right, who in turn chipped the ball into the middle. The French World Cup winner held off Franklin in the air but nodded the service wide of the near post.
From there, a rather quiet game came to life. Wright-Phillips spun away from Boswell to fire about a foot wide within a minute of Henry's miss. Wright-Phillips came away from the play trying to stretch, and ended up replaced by Saer Sene at halftime due to reported hamstring tightness.
United, Red Bulls, Geiger, red card. It's happened before: In a legendary 2012 playoff match, Geiger sent Bill Hamid off for a foul on Kenny Cooper, ordered the retake of a converted Red Bulls penalty kick - a retake was then saved by substitute goalkeeper Joe Willis - and then needed two red card-worthy offenses from Rafael Marquez before sending the Mexican defender off.
On that cold night, Geiger got every call right. Hamid's foul denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity, the first NYRB penalty involved massive encroachment by Thierry Henry, and Marquez both punched Chris Pontius and hit him with a dangerous studs-up tackle. It was, quite frankly, an outstanding performance in an environment that had threatened to boil over throughout.
Tonight, however, Geiger's decision was the wrong one. On the play in question, Olave's clearing header fell between Espindola and Dax McCarty. Espindola, focused on the ball, reached his foot out to control the bouncing ball just as McCarty arrived to try and chest-trap the ball away. While there was clear contact, most of the force came from the sprinting McCarty; Espindola's ankle was not locked, and it was the outside of his foot rather than his studs that hit McCarty.
Geiger apparently saw something different from that reality, however, and quickly went for a red card that no Red Bulls player was even appealing for. Even McCarty himself took the time after the match to say that he felt the play only deserved a yellow card:
About the red card: got the wind knocked out of me, didn't even realize it was red. Saw replay, wasn't malicious, should have been yellow.— Dax McCarty (@DaxMcCarty11) September 11, 2014
Playing with a man advantage, the Red Bulls would create two chances before halftime. Luyindula's brilliant pass from the midfield stripe was dummied on by McCarty in the 35th minute, removing Steve Birnbaum from the play and letting Wright-Phillips into a perfect scoring position. Wright-Phillips took an awkward swing at the ball, however, allowing Hamid to make a kick-save on his low roller.
In first-half stoppage time, McCarty shot wide after a Chris Duvall cross flicked on by Henry was headed away by a diving Franklin. At the other end, Nick DeLeon's crossfield pass in the 43rd minute gave United a rare opportunity, but Estrada's touch let him down and the chance disappeared.
DeLeon would be involved in another flashpoint, as Geiger once again found himself uncharacteristically going away from his typical by-the-book approach. Miller fouled DeLeon by undercutting him on a high ball in the 38th minute, and then went in afterwards to exchange words. Franklin arrived to get between the two, only for Miller to shove him away. In the ensuing scuffle, Geiger - and the near-side assistant referee - had what looked like a clear view of Miller briefly grabbing at Arnaud's throat. By the letter of the law, that's a clear red card, but instead Miller was let off with a yellow card (also booked in the aftermath was Red Bulls defender Armando, who was not even on the field at the time).
The second half started a bit like the first, with the home side holding most of the possession but failing to break down United's organized bloc of eight. Henry would finally create a chance in the 58th minute all by himself, dancing free of both Arnaud and Boswell inside the box before blasting a shot that forced Hamid to block wide for a corner.
The Red Bulls were attempting to up the tempo and use the full width of the Red Bull Arena surface, but looked a bit too tired to make it count after starting the same eleven they used in Saturday's 2-1 win over KC. It would again take a United mistake to give New York their next chance in the 71st minute: Taylor Kemp was in a position to clear, but instead was stripped along the endline by Sam, who moved into the box before squaring for Luyindula. The French veteran - a constant threat on the night - didn't get excellent contact on his shot, but it caught Hamid leaning the wrong way. United's star player in recent weeks managed to contort himself just enough to palm the ball around the post.
That save was wonderful, but Hamid's next act in the 77th minute was a Save of the Year contender. Luyindula spotted Henry's slashing run and supplied him with a wonderful ball inside the area. From about four yards to the right of the penalty spot, Henry cracked a powerful first-time shot that looked like a sure goal. Hamid, however, managed to fully extend his left arm and make a save on a shot that would have overpowered just about any other MLS goalkeeper.
After spending most of the half unable to turn rare spells of possession into counter-attacks, United would finally create a meaningful look three minutes later. Substitute Lewis Neal had the vision to spot fellow sub Kyle Porter on the other side of the field, and skillfully found him with a raking pass just out of reach of several NYRB defenders. Porter's low shot was kick-saved by Robles and didn't have enough power to carry into the empty net before Ibrahim Sekagya arrived to carry the ball away from danger.
United would get a further positive in the 82nd minute. Chris Pontius made his first appearance since October 27th last year, coming off the bench to replace DeLeon (who, after Porter's entry, had been playing as United's lone striker). United's longest-tenured player wasn't given much of an opportunity to make a more dramatic return, however, as the circumstances saw the ball mostly stuck in United's defensive end.
The Red Bulls - who desperately needed three points - moved Jamison Olave to center forward and more or less went to a 334 formation in an attempt to batter down United's defense. Just as it appeared that they would run out of gas, they struck. Sene chipped the ball into the box for Henry, who laid it off to Olave. The veteran center back showed more vision than most of NYRB's attackers did on the night in passing out of a crowd and over to the right side of the box for Sam. The English winger had escaped the attention of Neal, and Kemp failed to recognize the danger in time to dive in for a block. Hamid tried to stay big to protect his near post, but Sam found a tiny window to shoot through to win the game.
United remains five points clear of the rest of the East, but failed to make their game in hand on Sporting Kansas City count. The Black-and-Red will be off this weekend, and don't play an MLS match until 9/20's home game against the Philadelphia Union. In the meantime, they'll also have a CONCACAF Champions League match next Tuesday in Jamaica against Waterhouse FC.