Playing their fourth home game in their past five MLS matches, D.C. United had an opportunity on Sunday night to pick up points against a New York City FC side that has had it struggles early in the 2016 team. And coming off a stretch of picking up points in three games out of four, United had the best chance to go ahead in the first half.
But Alvaro Saborio put his chance over in the 32nd minute, and NYCFC made the Black-and-Red pay in the second half with David Villa and Khiry Shelton supplying the goals in the 2-0 decision.
It was D.C.'s third loss in six MLS home games this season.
"If you don't reward yourself for some of the good things you do, against a team like NYCFC, who has real talent, in the attack, they are going to find something," United manager Ben Olsen said after the game. "They very rarely don't score goals. On the defensive end, I don't rate them as high as I do on the offensive end, so you got to go score some goals."
Over the course of 90 minutes, United failed to get any of their ten shots on target. But perhaps the key moment came in the first half, when Lamar Neagle worked his way down the right, crossing in towards the middle, where Saborio found himself open, eight yards out from goal. With just Josh Saunders to beat, Saborio sent his shot over the goal, when scoring seemed easier.
Saborio failed to round Saunders minutes later after being put in behind the defense, and then United's only threat in the second half came when Marcelo Sarvas hit the post from a free kick at the top of the box. By that point though, NYCFC were up two goals, and cruising to their third win of the season.
"The game was strained for us. We never got the rhythm of the game. We were a little bit off," Marcelo told B&RU. "We had the chance in the first half that we didn't bury, and the second half, the energy wasn't there. There was a bit of disconnect in the team."
Fabian Espindola missed the game with his hamstring injury, and Chris Rolfe was out with a suspension, though he has also apparently picked up a concussion during the week. On top of that, Patrick Nyarko - who the team has leaned on heavily through the first third of the season - was forced off early due to an illness.
Nyarko got the start and tried to work through the illness, but it was quickly evident that he wasn't going to be able to contribute on the field. After 26 minutes of looking like a shell of the player who has contributed two goals to United's campaign thus far, Olsen replaced him with Jared Jeffrey, moving Nick DeLeon out wide.
It was a necessary move, but one that had an affect on the way that United wanted to play.
"Patrick is a player that can break lines dribbling the ball. When he's off the field, we don't have another player with the same characteristics," said Marcelo. "It's a big loss, especially in games like this, where the midfield is tight. [NYCFC] play good football, so you need someone who can push forward. But we needed to adjust."
But instead of adjusting, United struggled to create much offensively. And then in the second half, NYCFC took advantage, with David Villa opening the scoring in the 49th minute, before Khiry Shelton put the game out of reach for the Black-and-Red four minutes later.
The gut punch was one that United could not recover from. And so after six home games this season, D.C. United have lost three of the contests, with just two wins to show for their effort. And in their past eight home games in all competitions, United has walked away with a win just three times, including MLS playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League play.
That's a far cry from the 11 games that the team has won at home in each of the past two seasons. With just 11 games at home left, United will have to find a way to fix their home form, if they want to reach their goal of making the playoffs come October.
"Can't lose at home, that's the bottom line, DeLeon told B&RU. "And that comes down to our mentality. We let in soft goals, and those are mistakes where we lapse mentally. I think it comes down to having a mentality that we aren't going to lose at home."
And tonight, the team's mentality in the crucial moments cost them the game.
"It still comes down to a few moments, Olsen said. "All these MLS games, it's all about moments. Today we didn't do well in those moments."