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After rough stretch, D.C. United show hope in draw with Toronto FC

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Despite wasting a lead against the league leaders, United held firm with 10 men

It’s been quite the disappointing season for D.C. United, who came into the year hoping to build upon the late season success from 2016. Instead, poor form from several key players and untimely injuries have it looking like United is going to miss the playoffs. Saturday night’s 1-1 draw wasn’t the result United needed against Toronto FC, and it might have hurt even more considering that Kofi Opare had given the Black-and-Red an early lead.

But after seeing Lloyd Sam sent off to end the first half, United managed a coherent second half. An unfortunate own goal ruined any chance of United picking up three points, but United dug in, and one of the worst defenses in the league kept one of the best offenses in the league without a shot on goal in the second half.

“It was a group performance, it really was across the board,” head coach Ben Olsen said in his post game press conference. “And that’s what it takes to get any type of points in this league. Especially the way we do it, the way we’re built.”

A productive first half from United, a surprise considering the first versus last element to the match, was highlighted by Opare’s goal in the 6th minute. Deshorn Brown had already gone close, and Nick DeLeon and Luciano Acosta also created opportunities within the opening five minutes. So when Opare rose up to score United’s first header from a set piece this year, it was well deserved for United, who came into the game on a six game losing streak.

“We came out with good energy. We are playing at home, so we definitely want to put it to them,” Opare told B&RU in the locker room after the game. “This group has the ability to play well against any team in this league. This game, we were fearless. We went out and played, and the goal helped us. It helped us in terms of confidence, and being positive.”

Few chances were traded for most of the rest of the half, which is an improvement defensively considering that United had conceded 15 goals in their past four games. But just when it seemed like United would get to the break feeling good about themselves, Lloyd Sam got sent off for scything down Chris Mavinga from behind moments before halftime.

That set United up for a final 45 minutes in which they were pinned back. They didn’t take a shot in the second half, but also kept Toronto without a shot on target on eight attempts.

“The first half we played well. I thought our energy, the commitment, the discipline was good in the first half,” added Olsen. “The second half, it’s a different ball game. Things are more simple in how we go about the game. It took guts. The guys dug in.”

Despite not conceding a shot on target, United - in what can only be the perfect summation of this 2017 season - gave away a comical own goal in the 52nd minute. Jared Jeffrey tried to clear the ball out from just in front of goal, but his clearance bounced off of Steve Birnbaum, squirming away from Bill Hamid for the equalizer.

Instead of capitulating though, United kept their composure.

“First of all, I think it’s not the result we deserved today. Even in the second half, they had a lot of the ball, a lot of possession, but they didn’t create [anything] in front of our goal,” midfielder Marcelo Sarvas said in the post game press conference. “It was crosses, but everyone was in good positions, doing their job. Closing space, if someone was out of position, the other one was working [to cover]. I think the discipline, the commitment, was the key in the game.”

“Everyone knew their job defensively. Everyone was clicked in, communicating, and helped each other,” Opare said. “We tried to be as compact as possible, and force them out wide. I think everyone understood that game plan. It was a team effort.”

Over the course of 90 minutes, United allowed just two shots on target, both of which were Bill Hamid saves on Sebastian Giovinco in the first half. So the fact that United couldn’t get out of RFK Stadium with three points, despite playing with 10 men for 46 minutes, adds an element of disappointment to the result.

“It’s easy for us to feel unfortunate this year. It’s not what we’re about right now. It stacks up. A red card, an own goal. Each game has it’s own story,” said Olsen. “So what? What are you going to do about it? What’s your response to all of this?”

“It would be easy for these guys to not be selfless, and disciplined in the second half, and throw their hands up. There’s been a lot of things that have not gone our way this year. But they didn’t.”

Had this performance come early in the year, or if United weren’t stuck three points adrift of the rest of MLS, maybe United could use this game to turn their season around. As it is, the gap between them and the final playoff spot is likely too big with just 11 games left in the season. That said, this is the type of performance which United can still build upon going forward. The signing of attacker Bruno Miranda may help spark an attitude change, and more reinforcements appear to be on the way.

So while no one from United will admit to looking forward to 2018, the team now has shown itself capable of competing in games in 2017, which might, in the long run, help this team once again fight for a playoff spot come 2018.

“[The result] instills confidence. The past few games, we haven’t showed up as well,” said Opare. “And to do this against arguably the best team in MLS right now, is a testament to the quality we have on this team. We haven’t shown it at times, but the quality is still there, and we are able to put in a good performance.”