Despite playing close to a full-strength lineup for 80 minutes, D.C. United could only manage a 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union in today's preseason match. Sebastien Le Toux - who usually finds the net for the Union against DCU - cleaned up a rebound in the 7th minute to give Philadelphia the lead, but Fabian Espindola scored his third goal of the preseason early in the second half by converting a spot kick won by Patrick Nyarko.
United again came out in the 4411 that increasingly looks like their preferred formation at this point. With next week's CONCACAF Champions League match in mind, Ben Olsen started close to his best eleven: Andrew Dykstra in goal; a back four of Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Taylor Kemp; a midfield of Nyarko, Markus Halsti, Marcelo Sarvas, and Nick DeLeon; and newcomer Luciano Acosta floating underneath Espindola.
Despite the strong team, United got off to a poor start. Philadelphia controlled most of the first 10 minutes as United couldn't keep the ball and seemed at a loss whenever a Union player stepped between the lines of midfield and defense. Fabinho's 4th minute cross gave Philly their first opportunity, as it hung up just long enough to elude Kemp's leap. The delivery fell perfectly for Le Toux, but the Frenchman could only shoot right into Dykstra's chest.
Le Toux made up for that poor shot in the 7th minute. Another attack down United's right saw former United attacker Chris Pontius slotted in behind Franklin. Pontius crossed low to the near post for CJ Sapong, who beat Boswell to the ball but could only put his lunging shot off the crossbar. The rebound flew over a helpless Dykstra before landing in front of Le Toux, who reacted more quickly than the retreating United defense to scrape a challenged shot inside the far post.
United finally started to get their act together thanks in part to Sarvas getting more active with and without the ball in an effort to wake his teammates up. However, some impatience from DeLeon - running offside on a lovely through ball from deep by Sarvas in the 11th minute, then forcing a pass to no one a minute later after a bad Union turnover - defined the minutes that followed.
From there, things got chippy in a hurry. Moments after Fabinho got away with slicing down Nyarko from behind, Boswell earned a clear booking by body-checking Union captain Tranquillo Barnetta at midfield. That 19th minute yellow touched off a period where cards were the only real talking point. Union newcomer Roland Alberg was booked for a high arm on Acosta in the 21st minute, before Birnbaum picked up a yellow for tugging down Sapong on what could have been a breakaway in the 24th minute. Sarvas, still trying to spark United to life, joined the party in the 27th minute with a crunching tackle on Alberg inside the center circle.
Sarvas was unintentionally involved in United's next scoring chance. Alberg poked the ball away from him in the 31st minute, but it rolled straight to Acosta. The diminutive Argentine took off at full speed, playing a one-two with Espindola before racing towards goal. A very good recovery from Richie Marquez prevented Acosta from going straight to goal, and after a quick cut "La Joya" fired a shot that Andre Blake caught and held.
The final kick of the half nearly saw United equalize, as a crisp spell of possession saw DeLeon dip inside as Acosta pulled his man wide. Acosta passed into the vacated space for DeLeon, whose powerful 24 yard shot whipped a couple of feet over the crossbar. United had owned most of the possession in the final 25 minutes of the half, but had to settle for looks like this one too often.
Within the first 5 minutes of the second half, both teams had very narrow offside calls disrupt otherwise dangerous opportunities. First Acosta split the defense for Espindola in the 47th minute, while in the 49th minute Sapong was flagged after Leo Fernandes aimed a cross from the right his way.
United's 55th minute equalizer started with, of all people, Boswell. The club captain won a tackle and stepped into the midfield, as he tends to do on occasion. This time, he exchanged passes with DeLeon before eventually retreating to let DeLeon handle the attacking. DeLeon dribbled a good 30 yards from the left into the middle before overcooking a pass wide right to Nyarko.
The Ghanaian winger saved the day, though, by acrobatically keeping the ball inbounds and then controlling it. Nyarko rounded Fabinho to get into the Philly box before being tripped up. The obvious penalty kick was given, and though Blake got a hand on Espindola's shot, it had enough power to comfortably nestle into the back of the net.
Following a near-instant reply from Pontius that forced Dykstra into a save, United fans got to see Chris Rolfe - who has been dealing with achilles tendonitis - make his first appearance of the preseason. Rolfe came in on the left wing, with DeLeon moving into the middle and Halsti exiting. A 64th minute free kick by Nyarko found Birnbaum at the back post, and the USMNT hopeful's header managed to beat Blake only to float just over the bar, landing on the roof of the net.
The Union had made a mass substitution around the hour mark, and United had their best spell of the match in the minutes that followed. A splitting deep ball from Sarvas found Kemp storming down the left wing. Kemp crossed before Warren Creavalle could recover, forcing Blake to palm the ball away from danger. Brazilian center back Anderson conceded a corner kick that eventually fell to Rolfe, whose scuffed shot still forced Blake into a diving save.
Philadelphia figured some things out, though, and had the next two chances. First, a Birnbaum giveaway gave the Union a 5v4 break that ended with Walter Restrepo ripping a shot well over the crossbar in the 73rd minute. Two minutes after that, trialist Ilsinho - who once started a Europa League final for Shakhtar Donetsk - showed nimble footwork and some strength to dance along the endline, holding off Boswell before teeing up rookie Fabian Herbers. The Creighton product met the pass with a first-time toe poke, but Dykstra had done well to step off his line and get big to make the save.
United made four subs in the 80th minute, switching up to a 442. The new lineup saw Dykstra maintain his spot, while Luke Mishu came in at right back alongside the remaining 3 defensive starters. In the midfield, new signing Rob Vincent lined up on the right wing while draft pick Paul Clowes partnered Collin Martin in central midfield. Alvaro Saborio had come in a few minutes earlier for Acosta, and he renewed his old RSL partnership with Espindola up front.
As with most substitute-heavy games, the match lost its rhythm and both sides were able to move quickly through the disjointed midfield. Clowes was forced into an important interception after a cross from Eric Ayuk pinged off of Birnbaum in the 82nd minute, while Dykstra had to come off his line to again deny Herbers after Restrepo escaped Mishu to slot the German in behind. Going the other way, a give-and-go for United nearly put Rolfe into a dangerous spot only for the Union to scramble the ball clear in the nick of time.
The final opportunity of the match should have fallen to Saborio, but he took his eyes off Espindola's 90th minute pass. With a good first touch, Saborio would have had an open shot from inside the box, but instead the ball simply drifted away from him before being cleared.
United will conclude their preseason on Saturday, February 20th, with another friendly at Al Lang Stadium. The Black-and-Red will take on the Montreal Impact in a game that will likely see Olsen use his projected CCL starters sparingly (if at all). That game will be streamed via the Tampa Bay Rowdies Youtube page.
We will add highlights when they become available.