HARRISON, N.J. – D.C. United entered their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the New York Red Bulls on Sunday evening with plenty of momentum. Unbeaten in eight of their last nine matches, United finished the regular season atop the conference table, their confidence sky-high.
Conversely, the Red Bulls took the pitch at Red Bull Arena a tad battle-weary. Having emerged victorious in Thursday’s Knockout Round match vs. Sporting KC, Sunday’s encounter would be their third match in just over a week.
Yet things did not go as planned for the visitors.
United started decently enough, displaying good energy and a desire to extract a result. But from there on out, it was all Red Bulls. Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips got them started with a wonderful combination in the 40th minute, and Henry would demonstrate his class again in the 73rd, playing a picture-perfect ball to Peguy Luyindula for the insurance tally.
The 2-0 victory puts D.C. in a hole headed towards next Saturday’s return leg at RFK Stadium, and after the match, most in a subdued United locker room lamented their performance.
"I think it was a good start to the game, a good first 20-25 minutes [for us] and then I think New York put a whupping on us from there,” United head coach Ben Olsen said after the match. "In a game like this you have to have everybody play well. We had very little of that. Our passing was poor, we lacked ideas. It wasn’t for lack of want – it just was an off night.
“It is not a good time to have a bad night.”
United midfielder Chris Rolfe made his return to the field for the first time since breaking his arm in early September, but was unable to peg back New York in his 16 minutes off the bench.
“We lost confidence, lost energy, stopped believing in each other,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “We stopped moving for each other. Everything that built us as a team we stopped doing for some reason. We’ve put ourselves in a big hole now, it’s going to be a tough game next week.
"For me this was our worst game of the year. We’re capable of doing much better.”
DC seemed lost at times in the second half and had particular difficulty in central midfield, where New York seemed to win nearly every battle. The forward pairing of Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson – effective in recent matches – had little chance to do much of anything on Sunday, outnumbered or on an island for most of the match. Mistakes that in previous matches had gone unpunished, New York pounced on.
After the match, Olsen made few excuses. Still, the fourth-year head coach did suggest that his side may have been caught off-guard by the Red Bulls. D.C. faced just one playoff team in their final six games of the year, not an ideal run of opponents when building towards the postseason.
“I will say this – [New York are] the first good team we’ve played in a while. That’s no disrespect to the teams that we’ve played in the last several weeks, but they were all out of it or maybe there wasn’t a whole lot to play for. This was a big boy’s game tonight.”
Added winger Chris Pontius, “We’ve had some off games and we weren’t punished for them. We got punished tonight by a team that has a bunch of attacking pieces and that’s not something that had been happening.”
Whatever the reason for Sunday’s performance, there was one over-arching theme shared by every United player who met the media after the match: Next weekend’s performance – and the collective mentality of the group as whole – needs to be much, much better.
“Everybody in this league knows New York can punish you,” Espindola noted after the match. “If you enter a game without being mentally prepared to play a serious game, you shouldn’t be in the playoffs.
“That’s what happened to us tonight. We just didn’t rise to the occasion.”