D.C. United fought their way to a second half lead on Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena, against their bitter rivals New York Red Bulls, only for it to vanish in a flash. Patrick Mullins, fresh off of his four-goal performance against the San Jose Earthquakes, finished with aplomb in the 70th minute, giving United a 2-1 lead. But four minutes later, that lead was gone, and four minutes after that, United found themselves trailing once again.
United could have folded, given that any chance for playoffs this tough year was about to be extinguished with anything other than a win. However, United continued to claw and scratch in the second game of the Atlantic Cup this year, and thanks to a stoppage time own goal from Fidel Escobar, United earned a point in a crazy 3-3 draw.
“You put the ball in tough spots, and get into good spots in and around the box, good things happen,” head coach Ben Olsen said after the game. “We’ve been unlucky enough throughout the year, I’d say we were owed a little bit.”
The 92nd minute equalizer started with Bruno Miranda, who came on as a substitute to make his third appearance for the club since his August arrival. There wasn’t much to aim for as he sent a cross in, but by driving the ball into a dangerous spot, he was taking a chance. United reaped the benefits as the ball bounced off of Fidel Escobar and past keeper Luis Robles, as the teams had to settle for a share of the points.
That had followed a fortunate deflection in the first half, as the Black-and-Red negated a Tyler Adams opener just before the break. Zoltan Stieber tried to fit a free kick underneath the wall while Steve Birnbaum and Marcelo Sarvas fought to create an opening. The ball clipped off of Bradley Wright-Phillips, wrong-footing Luis Robles and leveling the score. It was the type of luck that has evaded United, who only just managed to get to 30 goals on the season tonight.
With all that in mind, United could have hung their heads after Gonzalo Veron’s penalty put them behind in the 78th minute, spoiling the positives of fighting their way into the lead Instead, this new-look United side, so different than at the beginning of the year, kept pushing. It wasn’t enough to keep their playoff hopes alive, but the draw could be a building block for the future.
“[The Red Bulls] are a hard team to get anything out of. They put you under so much pressure,” said Olsen in his post game scrum with reporters. “I thought overall, we dealt with it well. Proud of the response... It’s an easy one to fold. I think you see the difference in the mentality in this group. Some of the new guys not having as much baggage, and understanding that there’s still life in this game, something to take out of it. It’s a good point.”
The biggest sore spot for United on the night was their reaction after going up a goal. After doing so well to create and finish the attack that became Patrick Mullins’ 70th minute goal, but before United could even have a chance to hunker down, Adams struck again. United failed to deal with ball in their box, which eventually saw Adams bag his second on the night. And then Paul Arriola conceded a penalty to Veron, who beat Steve Clark from the spot, despite the keeper guessing the right way.
“The game was open. Our mistake was that when we were leading 2-1, we should drop and make them fight for the goals,” midfielder Marcelo Sarvas told reporters in the locker room after the game. “We opened up, and tried to go for the third goal, and we made a little mistake.”
Nonetheless, it’s a small victory for United, who still have not won at Red Bull Arena since Nick DeLeon’s late winner in the playoffs in 2012. Since then, United has struggled to score goals, much less pick up results in New Jersey. The performances in recent weeks, boosted by the arrival of Arriola, Canouse, Stieber, Miranda, and Clark, have shown that this United team may well be on course for to get back up the standings in 2018.
“We’re building here. We have momentum for next year. There are still things we are working on, and that’s one of them,” Clark told B&RU of giving up the lead in the second half. “When you’re 2-1 up at Red Bull Arena, you want to stay that way. But I feel like we’re building a lot right now.”
And with United facing a long road trip to start the season next year, performances involving this level of resiliency are a must to stay in touch with the playoff places until the team can once again play within the District of Columbia.
“Let’s use these next three games to focus on how to get results on the road. Going into next year, we’re going to be on the road for a while,” said Olsen. “This is almost a dress rehearsal for that portion of the season. You have to get results, you have to stay in it for those first four or five months.”