DC United lament lack of final-third quality in loss to Red Bulls

HARRISON, N.J. — You’d think that, in a two-legged playoff series, a steady, sound defensive performance where your side only allows a single goal in each match would be enough to put you through.

You’d think so. But in D.C. United’s case, you’d be wrong.

Last weekend, United struggled against the Red Bulls, going the distance in a playoff match at home without registering a single shot on goal, an MLS first. Yet they looked similarly stingy on the other side of the ball, holding New York to a single goal, a Dax McCarty game-winner nicked on a set piece, leaving them in decent position for the second leg.

On Sunday, needing only a goal to force extra time and, if needed, penalties, D.C. looked to force the issue and keep their season alive. Nevertheless, their drought continued. They played another 55 minutes – stretching their drought to a total of 145 minutes — before registering a shot on goal, a relatively harmless Fabian Espindola attempt that Red Bulls ‘keeper Luis Robles pushed away with ease. They finished the match with two shots on frame and a ticket home from the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.

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Yet the effort at Red Bull Arena — which did see United carve out a couple of attacking opportunities that could’ve made things more interesting — left D.C. boss Ben Olsen somewhat pleased, if not disappointed in the overall outcome.

"I was encouraged for most of the game,” said Olsen. "They did everything I asked them to. We fell a little short with the difficult part, that was to score the goal. But again, to a man, I thought everyone had good performances and gave us everything and went out in the right way.

"I didn’t think we created enough in the first game. But I think this game here – again it’s just a matter of a little bit of quality in the final third, making the play that matters, whether it’s on set piece a few times, or maybe it’s not shooting – maybe it’s giving the extra pass. But again, overall, that’s as good as we’ve played here. I thought it was a good night, we just fell short with the goal."

United were shorthanded and missing a couple of key pieces: winger Chris Pontius and fullback Sean Franklin. In Pontius’ place, Chris Rolfe shifted out wide from his role up top, making way for Alvaro Saborio, as has been the case in several recent matches. Olsen shifted second-year center back Steve Birnbaum to right back to fill in for Franklin. United seemed to miss both players badly, at times looking unimaginative and overly reliant on the long ball, which was certainly the case in the first leg as well.

“Too many long balls,” said Espindola. “Not enough between the lines. They defended well — we did for almost the entire game except for the entire game, except the last 10 minutes, and by then it was too late.

That late goal from Bradley Wright-Phillips, of course, dashed United’s hopes, and, for the second year in a row, sent them packing for the season at the hands of the rival Red Bulls. Olsen, Rolfe and others in D.C.’s locker room seemed unbothered by the opponent that had knocked them out. To them, only one thing mattered: that they’d been eliminated. 

Not the case for Espindola, who’d previously expressed his desire to face the Red Bulls, only two years removed from a one-year stint with the team. When asked whether a loss to New York was any tougher to swallow than any other opponent, the Argentine didn’t hesitate with his answer:

“Yeah. Of course."