In what was easily D.C. United's most exciting game of the season, the Black-and-Red came away with a 2-1 triumph over the Vancouver Whitecaps thanks to goals from Bobby Boswell and Chris Rolfe. It was a fraught 90 minutes for both sides, with numerous chances at both ends and some disputed decisions from referee Dave Gantar, who was a very busy man thanks to physical play throughout.
United fans got a surprise before the game even started. Veteran midfielder Davy Arnaud did not travel due to an undisclosed injury, while Taylor Kemp ended up being held out of the gameday squad due to illness despite flying out with the rest of the Black-and-Red's traveling party. In the end, United ended up with just 16 players dressed for the match. United also shifted into a 4132 formation to start, with Perry Kitchen slotting underneath Nick DeLeon, Michael Farfan, and Chris Pontius. Chris Rolfe helped out defensively as well, allowing United to mirror Vancouver's midfield triangle.
The next surprise came about 71 seconds into the game. The move started with David Ousted, who swung the ball out to the Vancouver right. Steven Beitashour and Pontius collided, with the ball falling in favor of the home side's right back. Beitashour picked his head up and moved the ball forward to Octavio Rivero. While it appeared that Rivero was offside by a hair, the fact that Sean Franklin was a step deeper than his teammates may have confused the assistant referee enough to cause him to keep his flag down.
In any case, the real problem was that United didn't transition fast enough into defensive positions, which meant a 4-on-4 opportunity for the Whitecaps. Rivero waited until the scrambling defense went past him before firing a square pass across the top of the box to a wide open Pedro Morales. The Chilean had enough time to settle the ball and pick out the opposite corner with the kind of ease one would see in a training exercise.
The goal was reminiscent of last year's debacle on the road against the LA Galaxy, but United pulled things together quickly and started making interceptions in the Vancouver half. However, the next big incident came in the 8th minute and had nothing to do with attacks at either end. Sam Adekugbe tried to recover a bad touch by lunging in with both sets of studs exposed at Perry Kitchen. Kitchen fortunately had the quick feet to avoid the extremely dangerous tackle, and both teams came together after Kitchen understandably reacted with anger. Both players may get a call from the Disciplinary Committee: Adekugbe's tackle surely deserved a red card, while Kitchen appeared to use his shin to nudge Adekugbe while the Whitecaps man was still seated on the ground in the aftermath.
United got their revenge once the fracas calmed down, and they did so in the best way possible. The free kick from midfield saw Boswell go forward, and he stayed up after the Whitecaps cleared the initial service out for a throw-in. Pontius took the throw quickly, finding Farfan about 25 yards out. Farfan had time to measure up an inviting ball towards the near post, where Boswell comfortably held off the challenge from Adekugbe before nodding the service past Ousted.
A quick series of one-touch passes in the 28th minute from Vancouver eventually saw Morales slot Darren Mattocks in behind Franklin. Mattocks clipped a low cross into the six yard box, but no one from either team arrived to take a touch. From the ensuing corner, Rivero firmly headed on goal but his effort was right at Dykstra. Four minutes later, a Whitecaps build-up found Mauro Rosales, whose sublime cross was right where Rivero would have wanted it. Fortunately for United, he was unable to get much accuracy due to multiple United defenders challenging and the header bounced wide.
After a five minute span where Vancouver's high pressure defined the game, United finally strung some attacking possession together in the 38th minute. First Rolfe and DeLeon combined to free the Louisville product down the right, but his cross was too strong. Moments later, a terrible mistake from Pa Modou Kah sent Espindola in behind the defense. United's #10 passed to Farfan, who from an angle tried to chip Ousted with his first touch. He got the ball up and over the Danish 'keeper, but it could only drop onto the top of the net.
United had waited months for the return of Espindola for moments like the one in the 42nd minute. Espindola challenged Kah for a loose ball, flicking it past his rash challenge before racing in for what looked like a potential 1-on-1 with Kendall Waston. Matias Laba - who had been booked earlier for an intentional handball to break up a United counter-attack - tried to block Espindola's path but ended up clipping his countryman's ankle. Gantar had little choice but to give him a second yellow card for the professional foul, reducing Vancouver to ten men.
The next scoring chance actually fell to the Whitecaps, though it was unconventional to say the least. Morales picked up a loose ball just inside United's half and immediately tried to shoot. Dykstra fortunately was alert to the threat and ended up making a calm save. DC went straight up the field as a riposte, where Espindola's knuckling rocket from the left fooled Ousted, who managed to make a save but had no control over the rebound. The Whitecaps were lucky that the bounce carried away from any Black-and-Red runners.
The Whitecaps reorganized at halftime, replacing Mattocks with defensive midfielder Gershon Koffie and dropping into a 441. After a rather tepid start, Espindola nearly scored a goal entirely of his own making in the 54th minute. Espindola turned Kah like a top at midfield before racing in alone on goal. Unfortunately for United, Ousted managed to get a finger to Espindola's rasping low shot. Farfan took the ensuing corner short, quickly passing to Rolfe. Rolfe danced past Teibert along the top of the box before hitting a beautiful shot that looked like a sure goal. Ousted did even better this time, somehow extending himself to make a fingertip save that kept the scores level.
Vancouver came back with their own pair of near-misses a minute later. Morales dipped inside from the left before slotting the ball in for Rosales, whose clever run went undetected. Rosales cut the ball back, leaving Kofi Opare for dead, before curling his shot past Dykstra but against the post. The ball bounded straight to Morales, who was denied by a wonderful block from Franklin. In doing so, however, Franklin collided with Dykstra, who quickly indicated that he was in some pain. After a couple of minutes of attention from the training staff, Dykstra was substituted for MLS debutante Travis Worra.
United started to settle into some possession around the hour mark, but there was little indication of the goal that was about to arrive. Rolfe did well to spark the move from midfield in the 63rd minute, evading trouble before bursting forward as the Whitecaps backpedaled. Rolfe tried to play a one-two with Pontius at the top of the box, but a wild lunge from Steven Beitashour broke the play up (mostly by sending Pontius flying head-over-heels). Rolfe, still sprinting forward, ran onto the loose ball before blasting it past a helpless Ousted.
The crowd at BC Place wanted a penalty kick in the 68th minute after Farfan bumped Rivero in the box. While Rivero had done well to keep a play alive despite being 1v3, he was eventually dispossessed cleanly by Farfan. His attempt to salvage the moment with playacting - grabbing at his ankles despite contact coming above the hip - was embarrassing to see.
United had to defend a rare backpass free kick inside the 18 yard box in the 74th minute after some confusion between Worra and Opare along the endline. Waston headed the service from Morales over the bar, a connection that was repeated within a minute on a corner kick. On that occasion, the burly Costa Rican's powerful header was bound for goal, but Korb got his chest in the way to preserve the lead.
An error on a Whitecaps throw-in gave United a 2v2 break that should have been finished the game off. Pontius and Espindola charged in against Kah and Waston, but as he got close to the penalty box Pontius grew indecisive. Eventually he ended up cutting the ball back in an attempt to curl it across goal - the "Pontius Special," basically - but scuffed his attempt. Espindola made his displeasure with the choice clear, as he had been in position for an easy chance earlier in the move forward.
As a result, United had to survive eight minutes of ferocious Whitecaps pressure. Morales had a great chance to serve in a free kick near the corner in the 88th minute, but he simply blasted it over his teammates. Debutante winger Cristian Techera fired a 91st minute shot on the turn, but it made for an easy save for Worra. Then in the 93rd minute, a Whitecaps corner kick went just over Ousted - who had come all the way up - before falling to Rivero, who mercifully dragged his shot across the face of goal and wide.
The threats continued in the 95th minute. With Ousted again in the box waiting on a free kick from midfield by Morales, Worra came to grab the ball but came up with nothing after colliding with Kah. The loose ball fell to Adekugbe, but his meek shot rolled wide. A minute later, Waston - basically playing as a forward - flicked the ball on for Rivero, who raced past Boswell to briefly collect the ball inside the box. Chaos ensued, but United managed to somehow escape unscathed.
With the victory, United kept up with the New England Revolution at the top of the Eastern Conference on 14 points. The Black-and-Red will face another big game next weekend, hosting the Columbus Crew on May 2nd.