They made it mightily hard on themselves, but D.C. United did just enough to advance past the Ocean City Barons in their third-round U.S. Open Cup match at the Maryland SoccerPlex on Tuesday night, with a 2-0 victory.
Despite residing three tiers below United on the U.S. soccer hierarchy, the amateur side from the Jersey shore offered staunch resistance and were only undone by a 74th-minute Christian Gomez penalty kick and a late, late clincher from Ange N'Silu.
United will surely feel underwhelmed by their own performance, especially in the attacking third, but impact substitutes Chris Pontius and Gomez exploited the Barons' tiring defense and dragged the Black-and-Red into the Open Cup quarterfinals and a date with the USL2 Harrisburg City Islanders, who upset the New England Revolution on Tuesday.
Though veteran Ben Olsen captained the side, United coach Tom Soehn inserted a host of reserves into his starting lineup, giving Milos Kocic the nod in goal, deploying John DiRaimondo, Andrew Jacobson and Brandon Barklage in midfield and pairing N'Silu with Boyzzz Khumalo up top. Greg Janicki started at the center of defense, flanked by Devon McTavish and Marc Burch.
Meanwhile, Ocean City traveled south with a motley blend of out-of-season college players and part-timers led by stocky frontrunner Byron Carmichael, the Barons' all-time leading scorer, an elementary-school teacher in Trenton, N.J. who also coaches for the club's youth academy.
The upstarts from the PDL side sat deep and defended in numbers early on, but threatened in the 15th minute when a Barons free kick hit off United's wall and dropped to Karl Reddick near Kocic's left post. Reddick's snap shot was deflected just wide and teammate Joe Banks tested Kocic with an nimble overhead kick on the ensuing corner kick, but the rookie 'keeper gloved the effort safely and D.C. held firm.
Barklage won an individual battle against Barons left back Kevin Curran to key a 30th-minute United counterattack. But Barons goalkeeper Tunde Ogunbiyi was well-placed to make a reaction save on Rodney Wallace's near-post shot and seconds later he produced two more important blocks on long-range drives from Khumalo and Barklage.
Forty-two minutes in Carmichael chased down a long ball into the D.C. end and scrambled his way past Janicki after the two men clashed inside the penalty box, but Kocic read the play well and moved out quickly to smother the ball at the striker's feet.
The D.C. area had experienced sporadic storms throughout the day and though the setting sun bathed the SoccerPlex in gorgeous amber light as the first half wound down, another front quickly rolled through and dropped a cloudburst on the proceedings just before referee Jeff Gontarek blew for halftime.
The Barons certainly had reason to take a sunny disposition into the locker room after absorbing United's pressure and keeping matters level over the first 45 minutes. Soehn, on the other hand, was less than pleased with his team's blunt attack and brought on striker Chris Pontius in place of Olsen after the break, pushing Khumalo out wide and moving Barklage into the center.
A free header on a D.C. corner kick gave Pontius a glorious opportunity 10 minutes into the second stanza, but he nodded wide of goal on a free header inside the six-yard box. But the Californian continued to work hard up front and forced Ogunbiyi to make several agile saves as the half unfolded.
Barons coach Neil Holloway had taken issue with several of Gontarek's decisions and expressed his displeasure with increasing volume. Eventually the referee decided to stop play and canter over to the visitors' bench, ejecting Holloway as the United fans in attendance hooted with delight.
Then it was Carmichael's turn to spurn a good look at goal, as he headed a searching cross from the left wing over the target with Kocic exposed.
Pontius broke in behind the Ocean City defense again in the 68th minute after exchanging passes with N'Silu, but his first touch was heavy and Barons defender Jimmy Davis came crashing in to stop his progress near the penalty spot.
Soon after, DiRaimondo hit the turf clutching at his shin after a challenge in midfield, and the injury prompted Soehn to bring on another D.C. attacking mainstay in the form of Christian Gomez.
The Argentinean playmaker would soon change the course of the game, helping D.C. finally unlock Ogunbiyi and his hard-working back line in the 74th minute. Taking possession 30 yards out from goal, Gomez slalomed past two red jerseys and scooped a pass into the path of N'Silu's angled run into the box, drawing Ogunbiyi off his line -- and though N'Silu did not hit a firm shot, the Barons 'keeper reached the bouncing ball a second too late, upending the Congolese-born striker.
Gontarek quickly pointed to the spot and though Ogunbiyi guessed the right way, he could not get down low enough to block Gomez's shot into the lower left corner and with a collective sigh of relief, United took a 1-0 lead.
But Ocean City continued to search for an equalizer and their efforts came agonizingly close to fruition on a frenetic sequence around the 88th minute. First Kyle Miller went to ground under pressure from Burch inside the D.C. box, though Gontarek allowed play to continue -- and within seconds the ball was back on United's doorstep, where Leon Brown's header drew a sprawling block from Kocic and the rebound was smacked off the bottom of the crossbar. But the ball simply refused to cross the line for the PDL side as the Black-and-Red dodged a massive bullet.
Kocic had to make another acrobatic save in added time, and United fended off several Barons corner kicks before sneaking a second goal in the final seconds when Ogunbiyi parried a well-hit Burch free kick and N'Silu poked home a loose ball after a goalmouth scramble.
But the 2-0 final score hardly reflected the course of the tightly-contested match as Ocean City stood toe to toe with their MLS counterpart, only to fall just short of a massive upset.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.