Two struggling teams showed they’re capable of a bit more than we’ve seen in 2016, as D.C. United fought the Columbus Crew to a lively 1-1 draw at Mapfre Stadium. Ola Kamara, after being completely shut out of the game in the first half, staked the Crew to a 62nd minute lead. Following Harrison Afful’s controversial 74th minute red card, the Black-and-Red threw numbers forward and eventually snagged an equalizer thanks to Fabian Espindola’s 89th minute shot from the top of the box.
After a dispiriting loss to Philadelphia last week, head coach Ben Olsen made some notable changes. Newcomer Lloyd Sam was handed his United debut on the right wing, while Bobby Boswell, Luciano Acosta, Alvaro Saborio returned to the starting lineup. Lamar Neagle (hamstring) and Kofi Opare (suspension) were enforced changes, while Fabian Espindola and Alhaji Kamara were dropped to the bench as Olsen looked to improve his side’s attack.
United started the game off by pressing furiously straight from the kickoff. However, despite forcing goalkeeper Steve Clark into some rushed clearances, the early pressure only served as a statement of intent rather than becoming something more tangible. Columbus, for their part, leaned heavily on attempted through balls from deep, but throughout the first half they showed an inability to play those passes with precision.
United generated the first real chance of the game in the 18th minute. Sam found Acosta making a run inside the box, and Acosta dribbled toward goal from the endline. Despite pressure from the taller and stronger Tony Tchani, Acosta showed off his balance by keeping the ball in while holding off the challenge. From the acute angle, a shot on goal was not possible, but Acosta found Saborio. Unfortunately for United, Saborio was unable to square himself to goal, and the ball deflected off of him and behind for a goal kick.
Acosta was involved again in the 21st minute. After intercepting a pass at midfield, La Joya was brought down by Wil Trapp just inside the Columbus half. Before referee Silviu Petrescu could call a foul, Acosta bounced up and continued the attack, with advantage given. The Argentine found Sam on the right, but Sam’s initial decision to go wide ended up hurting the attack. United’s newest player did end up serving in a tempting cross to the back post, but Michael Parkhurst was on hand to concede a corner that was cleared.
Columbus held the lion’s share of the possession, but the Black-and-Red’s counter-attacking play consistently generated better chances. A cushioned first-time pass by Acosta started a 33rd minute attack that became a corner kick, with Kamara just getting ahead of Saborio to concede another from the flag. The second attempt was driven in well by Sam, finding Boswell at the near post. Boswell’s glanced header looked dangerous, but Clark’s positioning ended up making it a routine save.
More high pressure from United rattled the Crew in the 38th minute. Marcelo Sarvas initially surged forward alone to high press, but despite the slow arrival of reinforcements from DC, Tyson Wahl ended up attempting a flat, dangerous pass that Nick DeLeon intercepted. DeLeon could have opted to go to goal, but tried to chop a pass in for Saborio, whose low-angle shot forced Clark into a kick save. On the ensuing corner kick, United was called for a foul as the ball was served (a running theme throughout the night).
An intense game boiled over briefly in the 42nd minute. Following an attempt to chip the ball in for Acosta, Sam turned back to take up a defensive position and tried to use a swim move to gain position on Tchani. Tchani objected strongly, with the two players getting into a shouting match. Despite Sam briefly making contact with Tchani’s face and a hard shove from the Crew midfielder, Petrescu ended up simply talking to both players without pulling a card.
Kamara had been utterly silent in the first half, but he very nearly scored in the opening moments of the second. Boswell had done well to stop the run of Cedrick Mabwati inside the box, but Taylor Kemp’s ensuing clearance was picked up by Trapp. Trapp moved the ball back upfield for stand-in attacking midfielder Mohamed Saeid, who slotted Kamara - angling his run well to stay onside - in behind. Kamara’s low shot back across goal got past Bill Hamid, but smacked the foot of the post before United could clear.
The pace of the game remained high, and United nearly got on the board four minutes later. A cross from Sam appeared to be easy work for Afful at the back post, but the Ghanaian missed his header. Acosta collected and thought he had caught Clark expecting a shot or cross back across goal. Acosta fired at Clark’s near post, but the Crew netminder produced a sharp reflex save to keep the game scoreless.
Acosta was involved yet again in the 55th minute, as more United pressure forced a turnover in the Crew half. Acosta ended up with the ball on the right wing and laid off an inviting pass for DeLeon at the top of the box, but the veteran couldn’t keep his shot down, firing two yards over the bar.
Columbus came straight back up the field from the ensuing goal kick, with Justin Meram’s piercing through ball taking advantage of Marcelo’s absence in the middle after the Brazilian had peeled wide in pursuit of the ball. Cedrick was in a good spot against a reeling United, but got caught in two minds. His eventual choice was, depending on your perspective, either a poorly placed shot or a bad cross that left Kamara with no chance.
Kamara would make his next look count in the 63rd minute. An overly strong pass out wide to DeLeon handcuffed the United midfielder, handing the Crew a throw-in. Following a few passes in United’s half, Tchani moved the ball wide for the active Afful in plenty of space. Afful’s low cross in behind the defense was inch-perfect, leaving Kamara with little to do beyond outpace the Black-and-Red and bury it past Hamid on the doorstep.
Tempers briefly flared again, this time between Trapp and Jared Jeffrey, before what will likely be the game’s major talking point. Marcelo won a 50/50 ball from Trapp, but it pinged loose and into open space. He and Afful both ran at it head-on, with Afful leaving his feet and showing his studs in going for the ball. Marcelo, meanwhile, also exposed his studs in a stamping motion. Petrescu saw Afful’s tackle as serious foul play, going with a straight red card in the 74th minute.
In the minutes that followed, both teams changed their formation. Columbus moved into a 441, sending in several more defensive-minded players while trying to kill the game off with some very slow free kicks (with Clark eventually given a yellow card for timewasting). United, meanwhile, made two attacking subs: Patrick Nyarko, after a long layoff due to a concussion, replaced Jeffrey, while Espindola came in for Acosta as Olsen moved into a 442.
United were throwing numbers forward in a desperate attempt to salvage a point, and it finally paid off in the 89th minute. Steve Birnbaum - staying up as an auxiliary forward - expertly knocked down a header following a long ball towards the top of the Columbus penalty area. Alhaji Kamara - who had entered earlier for Saborio - tried to post up in a crowd, but had the ball poked away by Trapp. Fortunately for United, it squirted to Trapp’s plant foot and bounced right into Espindola’s path. Espindola reacted perfectly, lashing a shot into the lower corner past Clark.
United continued leaving Birnbaum up high on occasion in pursuit of a winner, but the Crew ended up with the best look in stoppage time. Despite a four-versus-eight attacking move in the 93rd minute, the Crew managed to win a corner kick. United needed multiple attempts to fully clear, and the threat only truly subsided when two Columbus attackers were called offside after the ball was pumped back in.
Despite possibly being unsatisfied with a draw in a game in which they created most of the chances, at the time of writing the point is good enough to move the Black-and-Red back into the playoff places in the Eastern Conference. United will finish a four-game road trip next Saturday with a game against Toronto FC.