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Penalty nightmare for D.C. United in 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew

Steve Birnbaum conceded two penalties as United remain without a goal in 2017

D.C. United’s winless and scoreless streak to start the 2017 season continued on Saturday night, as United lost 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC at RFK Stadium. Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara provided the goals for the Crew, both coming from the penalty spot. Steve Birnbaum, who this week was left off the US national team squad for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers, gave away both of the penalties, one in each half.

And despite several opportunities, United once again failed to find the back of the net. They have yet to score in 270 minutes of play this season, after essentially the same group finished the 2016 season looking like an offensive juggernaut.

United had the services of Luciano Acosta for the first time this season, after he missed the first two games of the season recovering from an ankle injury. Head coach Ben Olsen named an otherwise unchanged starting lineup, with Ian Harkes getting his second start in a row, and Acosta replacing Jared Jeffrey.

Acosta’s reemergence was felt early on, as a display of wizardry from the Argentine playmaker created United’s first opportunity. Taylor Kemp was the recipient of Acosta’s work, with the left back in space to cross. His cross found Patrick Mullins in the middle, but his header was off the mark.

Acosta hooked up with Mullins in the 12th minute, as the number 10 picked up the ball in midfield and made his way towards goal. A pass to Mullins found its target, but Mullins had to go wide, and his shot from a tight angle was into the side netting.

Bill Hamid was then called in for his action of the game a minute later, with the Crew creating a chance on the counter. Justin Meram did well to make his way down the left before picking out Higuain darting into the box. The shot from Higuain didn’t have much on it, but Hamid still needed to make the sliding save, and Kemp was able to clear the danger away.

Two minutes later, Hamid had to produce a similar stop. Kamara’s pass to Higuain in the box allowed Higuain to lunge for another shot, but Hamid couldn’t quite hold the ball on the save. The danger persisted: Meram picked up the ball in the box, and fired on goal, but Hamid and Kemp combined to keep the shot from getting over the line.

United were forced into an early substitution, as Mullins went down without any contact trying to chase down a pass from Kemp. With Mullins holding his hamstring, Jose Ortiz - who spelled Mullins in the previous two games - once again became the focal point up top in United’s formation.

Ortiz had an opportunity for his first goal in the 34th minute, after Lloyd Sam knocked down a cross from Harkes in the box. Ortiz was quickest to react, but after taking a touch to set himself up, the Costa Rica call-up’s shot was blocked before it reached Zack Steffen.

Soon thereafter, the Black-and-Red fell victim to the first penalty of the night. Latching onto a ball in the box, Kamara went down when Birnbaum reached for, and missed the ball in the box. Ted Unkel immediately pointed to the stop, without much arguing from United. Higuain took the honors, and beat Hamid to the lower corner for a 1-0 lead.

Ortiz had a golden opportunity in the 49th minute to level the scores, but Steffen made the first of two critical saves on the night. A give-and-go from Ortiz and Sam led to a back heel into the box by the English veteran, unlocking the defense. Ortiz was there to collect, but Steffen was off his line quickly to block Ortiz’s chipped effort with a shoulder.

Birnbaum had a chance with a header in the 62nd minute, as United played a short free kick to Nick DeLeon. DeLeon clipped the ball into the box towards the far post, where Birnbaum was ready to win a header. If the effort was a shot, it flew well wide; if it was a pass, it was too far away from Patrick Nyarko back on the other side of the goal.

Things went from bad to worse in the 67th minute, as another spot kick went against the Black-and-Red. Birnbaum was again judged to have fouled Kamara in the box, this time giving the striker a shove just as Hamid was coming off his line to cut down the angle. After some vigorous protests from United, Kamara took this spot kick himself, and even though Hamid got his gloves to the shot, it wasn’t enough to keep it out of the corner as Columbus went ahead by two goals.

But not for a Steffen save in the 70th minute though, and United might have had a lifeline. Acosta’s well-placed free kick picked out Nyarko rising up to win the header. The shot was goal-bound, but Steffen flung himself down to the corner to tip it wide, and United couldn’t capitalize on the corner.

United had a couple of marginal chances late on, but could never find the formula to beating Steffen. Harkes had a shot from outside the box saved by the former University of Maryland ‘keeper in the 79th minute. Birnbaum had a goal-bound header towards goal in stoppage time, only for Ethan Finlay to head the shot away. A follow-up attempt from a corner was fired towards goal by DeLeon, but Lamar Neagle couldn’t get a touch at the far post.

With one point from three games, United has the next week off due to the international break. They return to action on April 1, when they host the Philadelphia Union at RFK Stadium.