WASHINGTON - For a good chunk of Saturday afternoon’s Eastern Conference semifinal match between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, it appeared as if United’s improbable run towards MLS Cup would continue.
Needing a pair of goals and a clean sheet after a 2-0 loss last Sunday at Red Bull Arena, United jumped ahead in the 37th minute on a Nick Deleon strike, then looked primed to grab the aggregate equalizer early in the second half. Everything seemed to be going to plan.
The two Frenchmen combined on a 57th-minute equalizer, a crucial away goal that effectively dashed United’s hopes of an aggregate-goal comeback in the MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T. With just over a half an hour to play, United needed a trio of goals to advance, it was too much to ask.
"I’m gutted for our guys obviously,” United head coach Ben Olsen said after the 2-1 victory. "They gave us everything today that they had and we fell short. They’re a good team and they’re a tough team to keep off the board. You have to be perfect in particular when you’re going for the second or third goal, you gotta make all the plays on the other side. They found the goal, it’s tough to come back after that.”
After such a miraculous run through their regular season - United set an MLS record for biggest single-season turnaround, completing a worst-to-first about-face of historic proportions - D.C.’s season ended with a relative whimper on Saturday, the Luyindula dagger taking the air out of the more than 20,000 fans in attendance at RFK Stadium.
"It’s tough,” midfielder Davy Arnaud said. "When we got that first goal, you could feel it. You could feel the energy. We came in at halftime and we felt it. I feel like we missed a great chance maybe five minutes before that, you know - it could've be 2-0 at that point. I felt like the goal was going to come for us, I felt like everybody felt that. We give up the goal and I don’t know what else you can say about that. The away goal when we didn’t score [on Sunday] is tough to come back from.”
In a hushed United locker room after the match, many were pleased with the team’s effort, but more were displeased with the hole they’d dug themselves after Sunday’s match - a performance many suggested might be their worst of 2014.
“The most frustrating part of this is that we played such a poor game in the first leg,” United forward Chris Rolfe - who started the match in place of Eddie Johnson on Saturday - told MLSsoccer.com. "That’s just something you can’t do in the playoffs. You can’t come out with that lack of energy and make the mistakes we did in that game. We had so much going for us all year long, to come out like that in the most important game was really frustrating.”
Said Olsen: "Overall I’m extremely pleased at the effort tonight and the performance they put on. I’m sure we’ll look back sometime soon and say this was a good season and pat ourselves on the back. Right now it doesn’t feel great.”