Last-minute lapse dooms United
Only 30 seconds away from a brave 1-0 win against FC Dallas on Wednesday night, D.C. United saw their lead evaporate in one horrifying instant as Carlos Ruiz produced an improbable goal to tie the match and eventually send the Black-and-Red crashing out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on penalties.
United's players, coaches and the crowd at the Maryland SoccerPlex were gutted by a shocking second half turn of events that saw the home side grab the lead thanks to a Christian Gomez goal, hold it tenaciously with 10 men after Dema Kovalenko's ejection, then give up the equalizer deep into an excruciating four minutes of injury time.
Afterwards, defender Bryan Namoff paused as he searched for the right words to express his team's disappointment after being so close to victory.
"Frustrated ... a number of adjectives, I probably could say," he said. "But I just think we needed to maintain the win. And towards the last couple of minutes, we needed to maintain the win by possessing the ball, and instead we tried to go to goal and that's when they countered. And when you get a player like Ruiz, anytime he gets into the box and has an opportunity to score, he will. And that's what happened."
A somber Kovalenko defended the actions that led to his second yellow card in the 72nd minute after being provoked by Carey Talley.
"(D.C. United coach) Peter (Nowak) said keep your cool, and I didn't do anything," said the fiery midfielder, who assisted on Gomez's 47th-minute score. "With Talley, I didn't do anything -- he hit me, I just pushed him a little bit, and then nothing. I don't deserve to get a card for that, especially when he knows I have a yellow card."
The decision was one of several controversial calls by referee Abbey Okulaja, and Kovalenko pulled no punches in his assessment of the performance.
"I'm very disappointed," he said. "Not making excuses, but the refereeing was horrendous, horrendous. I don't care if I get fined or whatever -- it's unacceptable. Right now it's got to get better. I'm not saying it's for our team, but it's for everybody. He made terrible calls both ways."
The Ukrainian-born hard man typically gets few breaks from referees, and he did not deny that his reputation may have factored into Wednesday night's events.
"It might be," he said. "I've tried to get better, and this year has been good, I thought. Like I say, it's really disappointing. The officials did a poor job, and I hope they look at the tape and how many mistakes he made. Every other call was a mistake. I hope we don't see him again."
Despite playing a man down for the last 20 minutes of regulation -- plus a draining 30-minute extra-time period -- United almost got a second goal on several occasions, thanks in large part to the hard work of lone striker Freddy Adu. But in the end, that one brief lapse at the very end of the first 90 minutes was D.C.'s downfall.
"That's the reality -- we didn't manage it well," said Ben Olsen, who wore the captain's armband in the absence of Jaime Moreno. "With 30 seconds left, a good team should be able to put games away. We didn't, and they countered us. At one end, we have a chance, we have possession, and all of a sudden it's going the other way. That's how it goes."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.