Hoping for revenge after their 2014 MLS Playoff ouster, D.C. United instead couldn't make their home game count, losing the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls. Dax McCarty, who briefly played for the Black-and-Red in 2011, was left unmarked on a free kick in the second half to head home the only goal.
Last year, as the number one seed in the East, United stumbled in the first leg at Red Bull Arena, rendering their victory in the second leg useless due to an inferior aggregate goal total. With the opportunity to take advantage of playing at home first in 2015, United couldn't manage much in front of goal. A lone Alvaro Saborio header was the best chance for United to get on the scoreboard. Down 1-0 on aggregate, United now head up to New Jersey next Sunday, in hopes of over turning the deficit. In two previous games at RBA this year, United lost 2-0 and 3-0.
United started the game brighter, but neither team threatened the goal early on. That at least was quite the difference for United, who had a penchant for conceding early goals at home throughout 2015. Felipe Martins had a header from a spell of possession from New York in the 17th minute, but his effort was wide of the goal.
Fabian Espindola, so often the engine for United, was the creator of United's first, best chance of the opening half, keeping alive a throw in down the left hand side. Espindola worked an opening for a cross, and with just Saborio to aim for, whipped in a cross that the Costa Rican striker headed over the goal thanks in part to defensive pressure being applied. Taylor Kemp delivered in another cross in the 25th minute, with Saborio again failing to find the target (though this effort was from further away).
Bradley Wright-Phillips, NYRB's leading scorer for the second straight year, had an opening a minute later as he was able to get on the end of a cross from right back Sal Zizzo. Trying to hit the ball out of the air, the younger Wright-Phillips couldn't direct his effort on target.
Nick DeLeon kept a corner kick alive for United moments later, sending a ball back into the box, which Steve Birnbaum headed just in front of goal. Perry Kitchen read the play, but couldn't direct his effort on goal, with Luis Robles claiming the looping ball before any more danger occurred.
The best chance of the first half fell to the Red Bulls in the 33rd minute, with United failing to properly deal with a cross into the box. Wright-Phillips instinctively flicked the ball over to Mike Grella, allowing the winger to take a touch, before shooting on goal from just yards out. Bill Hamid was right on the spot though, making a save with his face and allowing United to clear.
Proceedings began to go New York's way in the second half, with the Red Bulls enjoying a distinct advantage in terms of chances created. Kemar Lawrence got in behind United's defense early on, with Hamid's strong hand palming away the cross on the ground.
Grella powered a header on target from near the top of the box in the 58th minute, forcing Hamid into a quick save that United only temporarily dealt with. Moments later, with New York keeping the pressure up, Lawrence was played in behind United's back line again by Felipe, but the shot from the left back from a tight angle smashed off the post and bounced away.
Espindola and Saborio combined to create United's first chance of the half in the 62nd minute, though Robles was hardly troubled in the end. Espindola won a header from a long ball near the opposition 18 yard box, allowing Saborio to streak in, only for the striker to send his half-volley wide of the goal.
With the game seemingly headed to a stalemate, the Red Bulls took the lead in the 72nd minute, courtesy of a header from McCarty. Kemp conceded a free kick 40 yards out from goal, and Sacha Kljestan whipped in a ball towards the far post, where McCarty lost his mark and headed home from point-blank range for the vital away goal.
Straight from the ensuing kickoff, Espindola went down to the other end and lashed a shot from 20 yards out, but saw his well struck effort fly just wide of Robles' goal, with the keeper at full stretch. Sadly, it was United's last real threat of the match.
The Metros did their job after the goal, really denying any scoring chances for a DC side desperate for a goal. Instead, Hamid was forced to make saves on Grella, Felipe, and substitute Gonzalo Veron as the Red Bulls sensed a chance to stretch their advantage. With a potentially severe injury to Damien Perrinelle earlier in the second half, there was six minutes of stoppage time. The best United could muster was a Birnbaum header on a corner from Espindola, but that effort bounced harmlessly wide of the goal.
United's attempt to overhaul the deficit will take place next Sunday at 3pm at Red Bull Arena.