1) Experience counts in the postseason. A lot.
As D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen described it in the lead-up to this game, the Red Bulls’ stars have taken part in about as many World Cup games as his team’s starting lineup has logged in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
In Saturday’s early stages, it looked like United’s young squad would make light of that factor. Surging forward with energy and commitment, the home side knocked on the door with good early looks for Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon and Branko Boskovic.
But between their own imprecise finishing and the capable netminding of Luis Robles, D.C. United made a classic rookie mistake in high-stakes matches like this: They failed to convert their quality into goals on the scoreboard.
WATCH: Pontius fails to convert PK vs. NY
“It’s typical playoffs – emotions run high and anything can happen,” said United defender and postseason veteran Robbie Russell, who sat this one out, but will be a leading contender to fill the spot of the suspended Andy Najar on Wednesday. “We put away a couple of our chances, maybe the penalty [kick] in the first half, it’s a different game.”
Allowing New York to hang around brought nervousness and frustration for United. The former surely contributed to Bill Hamid’s unsteady handling of Thierry Henry’s corner kick on NY's equalizer, and the latter eventually burst forth in the form of Najar’s petulant reaction to referee Jair Marrufo on his rapid-fire double yellow-card sequence.
2) The drama around the Red Bulls just doesn’t stop.
It’s been a theme of this club dating back to its early days under the MetroStars moniker, and it cropped up again Saturday night.
The official reason for RBNY defender Rafa Márquez’s halftime substitution was “calf tightness,” though it was hard not to suspect something more at play given his animated discussion with coach Hans Backe on the way into the locker room.
His replacement, Roy Miller, suffered a nightmarish moment on his own-goal and could only thank his lucky stars that his prime tormentor, Najar, got himself sent off.
WATCH: NY's Miller with own goal
Meanwhile, Henry was the picture of frustration for most of the night, routinely dropping deep into midfield to catch a sniff of the ball and often leaving strike partner Sébastien Le Toux isolated at the very moments when Henry was needed closer to goal.
Maybe Kenny Cooper needs to start alongside him, or perhaps Tim Cahill can improve his positioning in support. But at the end of the day, New York needs TH14 in and around the D.C. United penalty box a lot more often in the second leg on Wednesday.
Between surprising tactical decisions, uncertain chemistry and outright inconsistency, you just never know which New York team will show up.
3) Chris Pontius owns Connor Lade.
Pontius is inevitably wearing the goat’s horns Saturday night thanks to his telegraphed penalty kick being saved by Robles. But that should not obscure the fact that United’s captain was unstoppable for long stretches along his team’s left flank, with neither Lade nor midfielder Dax McCarty able to defend him alone.
United looked their best when constantly switching fields with booming diagonal balls to isolate Pontius on Lade. On the opposite wing, DeLeon wasn’t quite as dominant against Heath Pearce and Miller, but he’s got to feel good about his chances should Miller line up against him at Red Bull Arena.
New York’s outside backs may yet lose them this series.