Below the red line in the Eastern Conference with 12 games remaining in their season, D.C. United could ill afford to drop any more points at home. And with the scheduling gods on their side, United had a run of four games at home to vault themselves up the standings and into a playoff position.
But for the second week in a row, United only took a single point - again blowing a halftime lead - this time in a 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union. Taylor Kemp had put the Black-and-Red ahead after 16 minutes, but goals from Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius seemed to have handed United a crushing loss. A stoppage time equalizer from Steve Birnbaum at least gave the home side a share of the spoils, but DC was not satisfied with just one point.
"We want a win. It’s been awhile since we won," Birnbaum told reporters after the game. "We can’t keep getting ties, we got to figure out a way to get wins at home. It’s going to bite us."
Last week, United conceded a late equalizer to Hernan Bernardello in a 1-1 draw with the Montreal Impact. This week, United were the ones scrambling at the end, pouring numbers forward, testing Andre Blake late, before finally finding the equalizer from Birnbaum’s header.
Head coach Ben Olsen was sent off in the 85th minute, receiving his marching orders from referee Jair Marrufo. Yapping at the official the entire game, Olsen finally lost it when Luciano Acosta wasn’t awarded a free kick just outside the box late on in the match. So assistant Chad Ashton was at the helm when 5 minutes of stoppage time went up on the board.
United struggled to create real chances after halftime, but finally got going as they became desperate. Blake and the Union managed to deny them time and again, until Birnbaum sent a header back across the face of goal following Patrick Nyarko's desperate heave of the ball towards the back post.
"I thought we did a good job of making intelligent plays and getting the ball to dangerous spots. It was starting to feel like ones of those days when it just wasn’t going to go in," Ashton said in the post game press conference, filling in for Olsen.
"I thought we continued to create a lot of chances there at the end, and it felt like we deserved one, so it was good to see one finally go in."
That feeling of relief won’t be long lived though. With just 24 points from 22 games this season, United simply has to start winning, particularly at a venue where they have generated most of their points during the past two years. With just four wins from 11 home games, United are in danger of letting their season finally slip away.
"You can look at the table, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we need to step up," said substitute Lamar Neagle after the game. "We’ve need to step up, and I think these games are crucial. We really need to pick it up. Its very frustrating, hopefully we can right the ship."
One of the aspects ailing United has been their inability to put distance between themselves and their opponents during games. Last week, United had several opportunities to put the game away, and failing to do so led to Bernardello’s equalizer. Against the Union, Patrick Mullins had a golden opportunity to put United two goals to the good.
A ball played over the top from Nick DeLeon put the striker through on goal, with just Blake to beat. But Mullins, who scored in his first start last week against the Impact, fired a first time shot wide of the goal, with Blake trying to recover to put himself in a good defensive position.
Three minutes later, the Union were level.
"Real tough [conceding just before halftime]. We don’t do a good job on it. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot with that one," said Ashton. "Right before that, we should probably get a second. We’ve got to do a better job starting and ending halves."
"You go up 2-0 at that point, and their heads go down. We don’t put our chance away, we don’t do a good job on the set piece, and all the sudden their heads go up.," added Ashton.
United still have two home games in a row to salvage something from the homestand, and the trip to Montreal on August 24th is followed by another home game, against the Chicago Fire. So despite the inability to get three points from the games against the Impact and the Union, United still have an opportunity to get back on track for the playoffs in 2016.
But with each passing week, as the winless streak reaches six games, opportunities are starting to slip away for United.
"We’re definitely getting into crunch time, when we have to get wins. These home games are ones we need to pick up points, so this one hurts," Kemp said in the locker room after the game. "We’re getting to the point where we really need to put our foot on the gas to give ourselves a chance."