Though they represented MLS well against one of the region's top teams, D.C. United walked away from Wednesday's 1-1 draw with Pumas UNAM feeling frustrated -- not only at referee Mauricio Navarro's questionable penalty call in the 51st minute, but their own inability to finish a number of second-half chances.
"We did a pretty good job, running and finding good chances in the first half. We should have been the winner, but we need to finish the chances we get," said United head coach Peter Nowak. "We still have the second leg and we're going to give everything we have, because we have got to win."
"Frustrating, very frustrating," said midfielder Freddy Adu. "I think we played well, but we had a lot of chances and we just didn't put them away. That always comes back to bite you."
United stunned the Mexican champions with an early strike from Christian Gomez, as the Argentinean again demonstrated his intuitive partnership with Jaime Moreno to nod home the veteran striker's cross in the 10th minute.
Predictably, the proud Pumas responded immediately, grabbing the match in a stranglehold with an impressive display of possession and flair, but the hardworking men in black had repelled wave after wave of attacks until Navarro's fateful decision changed the game.
UNAM midfielder Leandro Augusto was a force in the middle of the park all evening, confident in possession and distribution while providing cover for the Pumas back line. But six minutes after halftime, his cross from the left touchline posed little danger to the home side as it sailed over the United goalmouth and dropped in front of a late-arriving Gerardo Galindo at the far edge of the area.
But Galindo, perhaps calculating an easy way to draw his side level, took a touch and cut back into Moreno's path as the Bolivian tracked back in defense. Finding himself fully inside the penalty area, Galindo fell at the slightest contact and earned a vital spot kick that flashy Brazilian winger Ailton da Silva slotted home easily.
"We were bitterly disappointed about the penalty decision," said United winger Steve Guppy. "It was a complete shock to everyone that the referee awarded it, but what can you do?"
"I think that's a shame," added Josh Gros. "But calls are made."
United felt aggrieved they didn't receive a penalty of their own late in the match after defender David Stokes appeared to be pushed over from behind -- with a Pumas defender putting both hands full on his back -- as he went up to challenge for a corner kick.
"I don't think Pumas played a very clean second half. I hope this kind of stuff [the uncalled fouls] will not happen in Mexico City," said Nowak. "David Stokes got pushed in the box and just because he's 6-foot-3 and the players cannot handle him, he doesn't get a call?"
Pumas will feel bullish about their chances in next week's home leg at the Estadio Olimpico Universario in Mexico City, where the high altitude and fierce home crowd will require steely nerves -- and lungs -- from the MLS champion. But Nowak's resilient side is up for the challenge.
"If anything, this game makes us more ready," says Gros, "because we know what to expect and we know it's going to be a hostile environment in their favor. It's definitely going to be an interesting game."
Pumas impressed United with their confident, aggressive performance at RFK Stadium, though under continued pressure from the Black-and-Red, the visitors seemed to run out of energy, and ideas, as the second half wore on.
"I think they're a very good team, and they showed that tonight," said Guppy. "If you let them play, then they certainly will. In the first 20 (minutes), we looked good, then they took over. In the second half, it was relatively even, I thought. So it's set up nicely for the second leg."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. Thi story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.