WASHINGTON—The 2015 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Semifinal round began Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium with the latest installment of MLS’ oldest rivalry.
For the third time in four years, D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls – league originals, whose distaste for each other has only intensified over the years – met in the postseason, with the Red Bulls taking a 1-0 victory as the teams opened their home-and-away series in front of 19,525 fans.
RBNY not only earned the win, but also claimed a precious away goal on Dax McCarty's strike in the 72nd minute. D.C. controlled the match for stretches, but seemed to lack a final ball, finishing without a single shot on goal.
The two teams battled through a nervy opening 20 minutes before United's first good look of the match. Former Red Bull Fabian Espindola – who shared his eagerness to face his former club in the buildup to Sunday’s encounter – swung a ball in from the far corner to his former Real Salt Lake teammate Alvaro Saborio. A perfectly-positioned Sabo won the header at the top of the six, but couldn’t steer his effort on frame.
D.C. howled for a penalty kick moments later, when Espindola broke in alone towards goal and jostled in the box with Red Bulls defender Damien Perinelle. No call was made. In the 33rd minute, New York nearly took the lead on a close-range combination between Bradley Wright-Phillips and Mike Grella; Grella’s point-blank effort, however, was dealt with by United ‘keeper Bill Hamid, who got his face in front of it.
Moments after the halftime whistle, Hamid came up big again, smothering an attempt from the far side of the box by New York defender Kemar Lawrence. A minute later, Red Bull’s back line suffered a blow when Perrinelle went down with what seemed to be a potentially serious left knee injury, forcing him to exit.
In the 58th minute, RBNY continued their push. Midfielder Felipe Martins drove in a speculative effort from 30 yards, one which Grella redirected about 15 yards from goal. Hamid was once again excellent, parrying the attempt over the bar. Lawrence rocketed a shot off the posts moments later, but United regrouped at the other end, where Espindola and Saborio combined again, though the Costa Rican’s low volley was driven wide.
In the 68th minute, a bit of controversy in D.C.’s end: Red Bulls defender Ronald Zubar, who had replaced Perrinelle, sprinted towards a loose ball, going to ground on a strong challenge with United midfielder Markus Halsti, who he upended. United’s coaches and bench appealed for a red card, but referee Fotis Bazakos issued only a yellow.
Moments later, the Red Bulls finally got their goal: US national teamer Sacha Kljestan lined up over a free kick 25 yards from goal, drifting in a cross towards the top of the 6-yard box. Former United midfielder McCarty, now the Red Bulls' captain, shook his defender and was all alone at the far post, nodding it past Hamid and into the back of the net.
D.C. travel up I-95 to Harrison, New Jersey on November 8 for the return leg of the series, faced with the task of washing away New York’s away goal if they're to forge a path toward the Eastern Conference Championship. It’s an easier task for New York, who’ve had D.C.’s number at Red Bull Arena all year – the Supporters' Shield winners emerged victorious in both home matchups at RBA in 2015, besting D.C. by a combined 5-0 scoreline.
Armchair Analyst's Take
Often, over the past couple of seasons, the central midfield numbers game wasn’t necessary a problem for D.C. United. Yes, the old-fashioned 4-4-2 put them at a disadvantage against modern, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 teams, but just take a look at their record and you can probably surmise that they’ve figured out how to battle through those encounters.
On Sunday, they didn’t. RBNY swamped central midfield and gave D.C. no chance, save for direct play over the top. As a result United never had any rhythm, and their passing accuracy was shocking:
DC United completed just 54.5% of their passes. That is easily the lowest percentage this season (by 2.5%) and 3rd lowest since 2010. #DCvNY— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) November 1, 2015
That’s a gruesome performance befitting the Dia de los Muertos. United will have to find a way to come back to life in next week’s second leg.
– By Matt Doyle, Senior Editor