WASHINGTON—Thanks to high stakes, taut nerves and tired legs, playoff soccer isn't always beautiful soccer. But D.C. United took that truism to new levels on Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium.
Hosting a rested, Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls side known for its efficiency with the ball and ferocious high-pressing without it, the Black-and-Red elected to spend their Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinal opener minimizing their risks. They aimed to avoid New York's areas of strength on a playing surface showing wear from the long season in the rearview mirror.
“We knew that what they’re really good at is, when they win the ball in their attacking third,” said D.C. midfielder Markus Halsti, following United's 1-0 loss. “The pitch was also not in the best shape – so we were thinking about playoffs, why take the risk? We put together a simpler game plan today. They had the ball more than we did, but I think we defended OK.
“They are a good team, the winner of the Shield. We just didn’t make it today, but there are 90 minutes left.”
Mindful of the mileage accumulated in Wednesday's tense Knockout Round win over New England, United dispensed with any thoughts of building out of the back and kept their lines clear. Head coach Ben Olsen focused on direct play towards strikers Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio, and sought to use set pieces to counteract New York's substantial menace.
It nearly worked, as a fired-up Espindola carved out danger in the first half and the home side threatened on several free kicks around the Red Bulls' penalty box.
“We had a few good looks in the first half. Sabo had one or two chances that came from service. You don’t need a lot,” Olsen said. “They’re a good team and we’re not going to get a boatload of chances against them, so we've got to do well with the few we have. We didn’t do that. We didn’t have many, but we need a few.”
The final touch to test RBNY goalkeeper Luis Robles never materialized. And Wednesday's efforts took their toll down the stretch, as the oldest roster in MLS' intensity flagged and Dax McCarty finished off a well-executed set piece in the other direction to decide a taut affair in the 72nd minute.
“We failed to win the set-piece battle today, which was a big part of this game," Olsen said. "And it’s disappointing for that part, which we pride ourselves on, to let us down. They defended very well on their set pieces, I though Fabi’s deliveries tonight were great and the runs were good, but their defenders dealt with it very well. We were hoping to take advantage of that a little bit more than we did.”
Olsen's approach led to some grisly milestones. United's pass completion percentage of 54.5 percent safely ranks as the lowest of the 2015 season to date. And perhaps more urgently, their fleeting 41.9 percent of possession contributed to them becoming the first home team in MLS Cup Playoffs history to have zero shots on target.
“I think we had a great first half, had some good chances, if only a few,” Espindola said. “But when you have so few chances and you don’t take advantage of them, you see what happens.
“The game came down to just a minimal lapse in concentration in a very close game. The game came down to a dead-ball situation. Obviously coming back from 1-0 up there [at Red Bull Arena] is doable, but it’ll be difficult.”