A night after Real Salt Lake and Seattle played a tactically entertaining game that ended in a goalless draw, DC United and New York opened the formal Eastern Conference playoffs with a sloppier but as engaging one-all draw at RFK. History was made as for the first time in the MLS playoff as all goals scored in the match were own goals. But, considering the twists and turns this one took, that may be appropriate.
The turning point in the game was in the 71st minute with the game tied at 1. DC fullback Andy Najar was whistled for a foul on Joel Lindpere and cautioned as he ran down the field. Najar turned and flung the ball at referee Jair Marrufo, which lead to an automatic second yellow and ejection. In addition to forcing DC to play a little more conservatively with ten men, the Honduran international will also miss the second leg of the series and deny DC of its fastest and one of its most skilled players. After the game, DC head coach Ben Olsen blamed the dumb play on youth and frustration, an accurate assessment.
Before the Najar ejection, the tactics for these two teams were very clear. The home team came out immediately applying pressure to New York in order to grab an early goal. DC started Branko Boskovic to provide a little more offensive pressure on New York and the Black and Red were able to take advantage of a few favorable matchups, especially Connor Lade on the right and even Lionard Pajoy having the upper hand on Rafa Marquez in the middle. On the other side of the field, New York ended up starting Tim Cahill and configured their lineup to have Dax McCarty play on the right of a midfield diamond with Teemu Tainio playing the holding role. This denied New York an ability to execute their usual fluid passing game in the first half, especially when McCarty was forced wide to help Lade, and DC certainly had the better opportunities.
No opportunity was better than the penalty called late in the first half, as Connor Lade handled a cross into the box. The ensuing penalty was taken by Chris Pontius but his low bullet was well-handled by Red Bull keep Luis Robles, denying DC a golden opportunity to move ahead. In the second half, despite deficiencies on both sides, the only change was Hans Backe taking off an injured Rafa Marquez for Roy Miller, who would play a major role in the half. Miller’s insertion moved Heath Pearce back into the middle, a gamble by New York that almost backfired with Pearce sitting on a yellow and being asked to contain the active Pajoy.
The second half saw the visitors begin to assert more possession and play more their style of game, possibly due to McCarty moving deeper with Tainio as well as Henry dropping into the midfield to provide more ball control. Backe, however, elected to leave Kenny Cooper on the bench until late in the game, so the Red Bulls had to rely on Joel Lindpere and the wings for goal-scoring opportunities; Sebastien Le Toux as a second forward was mostly ineffective on the night.
The first goal of the night came from the first sub of the game. Chris Korb swung in a cross for DC that Miller attempted to clear but instead drilled into the back of the net. Simply poor technique, the goal seemed to spring the home team to life in the 61st minute as they had finally found the elusive first goal. However, New York responded quickly to take away the momentum. Again it will
Roy Miller Heath Pearce who, on a corner, headed a ball towards the net that Bill Hamid tried to collect but instead knocked down over the line for the second goal. After the game, Hamid argued he was fouled, but regardless deciding to punch the ball would have solved the issue.
After the Najar sending off, the game slowed down as players on both sides tired and both seemed to be content with the draw as long as they could try and sneak a second goal. In fact, DC had a few good chances created by Pajoy including a long pass where Pajoy looked to have been dragged down in the box by Pearce, who was sitting on a yellow. Regardless of claims by both teams of referee bias, both teams left opportunities on the field last night and both can claim momentum going into the second leg. Ben Olsen last night was adamant that his team was better on the night and should have won. New York can feel comforted knowing that they played a poor game and are yet still going home with the series aggregate level.