Depending on your perspective, Wednesday night's U.S. Open Cup play-in match between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium was either a showcase of attacking soccer, or an all-out defensive debacle.
Chris Pontius scored the first and last of United's five goals as the Black-and-Red topped New York 5-3 to earn a spot in the Open Cup field.
The two teams combined for five goals in the first half and eight goals all told as a litany of back line errors and poorly-executed offside traps resulted in scoring chances galore. The home side got the better of their Atlantic Cup rivals on this occasion, racing out to a 4-0 lead in the first 26 minutes only to hit cruise control prematurely, allowing New York back into the game but ultimately securing the result that allows them to defend their 2008 Open Cup title in earnest later this summer.
United coach Tom Soehn brought a host of reserves into his first XI, with captain Bryan Namoff and Pontius the only returning starters from Saturday's 2-2 draw with Chivas USA. Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio left star striker Juan Pablo Angel at home but fielded a starting lineup with no shortage of experience and ability.
New York began the match playing a very high defensive line, which pressed forward to catch United offside several times in the opening moments. But the tactic backfired in the sixth minute when Pontius made a late run out of midfield to meet Boyzzz Khumalo's pass into space, allowing the rookie to bear down on Red Bulls netminder Danny Cepero alone before squaring to Fred for what should have been an easy finish, only for the Brazilian to balloon well over the crossbar from point-blank range.
Pontius took care of business himself two minutes later, however, meeting Christian Gomez's corner kick with a firm, accurate header that spun away from Cepero and nestled into the inside netting for a 1-0 D.C. advantage.
Then it was Khumalo's turn to slash open the Red Bulls' back line as Gomez, taking possession at the center circle, laid the ball into the acres of space behind Red Bulls defender Andrew Boyens and company. The South African dribbled in on the exposed Cepero and despite a brief hesitation, was able to slalom past the Red Bulls 'keeper and hit a goalbound shot that Red Bulls midfielder Dane Richards could not keep out of the net.
Cepero's defense was doing him no favors but he quickly became the guilty party when D.C. grabbed an easy third in the 21st minute. He dived low to grab Ange N'Silu's cross but saw it clang off his palms, and Brandon Barklage was on hand to smack a quick shot into the unguarded goal, pushing the score to 3-0.
New York raced the other way and carved out a chance almost immediately, with Red Bulls forward John Wolyniec handed an excellent look at goal from 10 yards out. But Namoff lunged in with a well-timed block of his low shot, although it looked as though goalkeeper Josh Wicks also had the angle covered.
The visitors had endured a horrid start to the evening but their suffering was far from over as United midfielder Fred burst clear into their penalty box again in the 26th minute. Cepero moved off his line alertly to confront him but hit the ball right into the Brazilian's midsection, allowing him to continue towards goal and slam a close-range finish into the empty net as the game began to resemble a rout.
Half an hour in, Richards used his substantial pace to surge past United defender Avery John and deliver a low endline cross, but Wicks got down quickly to smother the ball at the near post.
Wicks, making his first start in nearly two months, looked sharp again in the 43rd minute when Red Bulls midfielder Khano Smith broke free and curled a shot towards the far post, only to be denied by the former LA Galaxy 'keeper's big right palm.
United's back line was playing with fire and finally paid the price a minute before halftime when Wolyniec found Richards at the top of the D.C. box. The diminutive Jamaican showed surprising strength to hold off United defender Greg Janicki before firing past Wicks to run the score to 4-1.
The goal gave the Red Bulls a flicker of hope as they headed into the locker room, and second-half sub Jorge Rojas added fuel to the fire with a well-taken goal just three minutes after the break. Working along the left channel, Smith had carved out enough space to send in a cross that deflected off Wolyniec and bounced to Rojas at the top of the 18-yard box. The Venezuelan international swiveled his hips and lashed a side half-volley just inside the left post to cut the deficit to 4-2.
Yet the Black-and-Red struck back in the 52nd, re-asserting a three-goal lead as Fred cantered down the left touchline, cut back onto his right foot to evade a backtracking Richards and curled a dangerous in-swinging cross into the goalmouth. Cepero dashed out to punch it clear, but couldn't reach the ball before Pontius, who flicked a short header into the goal as Cepero tumbled over teammate Kevin Goldthwaite.
For all of New York's back line breakdowns, United were proving plenty generous themselves and they handed their visitors another gift just past the hour mark, as Janicki handled a fast-moving cross inside his own box, drawing a prompt penalty call by referee Mark Kadlicek.
Rojas stepped up to the spot kick and sent Wicks the wrong way, arrowing his finish into the left side of the goal to close the gap to 5-3.
John did well in a rare foray forward, dribbling into the Red Bulls box and reaching the byline before centering for Pontius, whose close-range shot looked to have been blocked by Jeremy Hall's hand. But to Pontius' disbelief, Kadlecik waved play on.
Soehn soon brought on Marc Burch and re-arranged his side in a 4-4-2 formation, but to the discomfort of the RFK faithful, New York continued to find gaps between the D.C. defenders.
First, Wolyniec broke free along the left side of the United box and sent in a short cross that forced Janicki to make an awkward intervention while facing his own goal. Then, Danleigh Borman sprinted on to a long ball played into space behind Devon McTavish -- now playing right back since Namoff's substitution -- only to crash headlong into the advancing Wicks as the big netminder touched the ball away.
The Red Bulls continued to threaten but ran out of time, leaving United to officially advance to the '09 U.S. Open Cup bracket.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.