Friday, November 9, 2012

DC United Stuns Red Bulls !


HARRISON, N.J. — D.C. United entered its Eastern Conference semifinal series with the New York Red Bulls as an outside shot to make any noise in the playoffs. Despite finishing the season on a seven-game unbeaten streak and putting up the third highest point total of any MLS team—all without the use of defending MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario—pundits and opponents alike seemed to think of United as little more than an unexpected road bump for the likes of Sporting Kansas City or New York.

Three red cards, two own goals, one snowstorm and one hurricane-induced schedule swap later, United is suddenly the odds-on favorite to win the conference final, having emerged from yesterday's game at Red Bull Arena with a wild, wide-open 1-0 victory over their rivals. The win—which brought the aggregate score for the home and away series to 2-1 and sets up an face-off with the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals—was vindication for a team that many had already written off.

"We are the most successful team in the league," United President and CEO Kevin Payne said after the match, standing in the center of a raucous post-game locker room celebration. "Not New York. Not Los Angeles. Nobody else. Us. And tonight, this team lived up to that tradition."

This was never going to be an ordinary game. After working around Hurricane Sandy and a powerful and unexpected blast of winter weather that pushed the game back from Wednesday to Thursday, most of the small crowd—the announced attendance was over 14,000, though it appeared there were between 5,000 and 6,000 actually there—knew to expect the unexpected. How fitting, then, that the game's biggest moment would be something out of the ordinary: an encroachment call on a penalty kick attempt. And how impossibly perfect, then, that the person who made the call was none other than Mark Geiger, who'd victimized United earlier in the year with a similar call.

This time around, United found themselves benefiting from Geiger's pet peeve. In the 71st minute, Red Bulls forward Kenny Cooper was alone on goal. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid—who'd already bailed his team out with several critical first-half saves—charged out to meet the onrushing attacker. It was a clear foul meriting a red card. Hamid was sent off without hesitation. Substitute Joe Willis, who hadn't seen action in months, was brought on to replace him.

Cooper stepped to the spot and calmly converted the penalty kick, but Geiger disallowed the goal after noticing that three different Red Bulls players entered the box early. On the ensuing re-take, Willis guessed correctly and stopped the attempt. It proved to be too big a blow for New York to overcome.
Hamid didn't say much about the card, but he made it clear some 90 seconds after leaving the pitch that he didn't exactly agree with the call via his Twitter account. (The tweet has since been removed). Add that to the list of anomalies in this series: ejected player goes to locker room and immediately tweets his distaste for NBC Sports color commentator Kyle Martino's agreement with the referee's decision.

United's lone goal came just two minutes before full time, courtesy of rookie phenom Nick De Leon, who confidently struck a ball from the right side of the box that eluded Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. The assist on the goal came from a most unexpected source—Robbie Russell. Russell, a veteran defender filling in for the suspended Andy Najar at right back, had played only 12 minutes since returning from an injury in September. “I just saw a black shirt running across my face and wanted to put [the ball] in front of him,” Russell said after the game.

The goal sent United's supporters into a frenzy. Some 250 fans—many of whom had spent 11 hours on buses the previous day, only to watch the match be cancelled—made the trip back up. The clubs and league again arranged for buses and tickets for the supporters, a move originally made as a consolation to United after the schedule swap.

United Head Coach Ben Olsen was painfully aware of the sacrifices involved in traveling for a mid-week game.

"Some of those supporters out there, they're probably already booking their tickets to Houston," a smiling Olsen said. "I don't think they'll ever work again, some of them are gonna get fired [laughs]. It just means a lot to the guys and this organization."

While United celebrated the victory, the feeling in the New York locker room after the match was one of utter devastation. Dan Dickinson, who covers the Red Bulls for Gothamist, described how Thierry Henry consoled Cooper as he fought back tears, unable to come to grips with the cruel reality that his season was over. A despondent Tim Cahill also came to the aid of his teammate: "What can you say? It’s life. I’ve missed penalties in the past. I don’t even for one instant blame him."

So, what's next for United? The club will travel this afternoon to Houston, where they'll face the Dynamo, which entered the playoffs as the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference and promptly knocked off top-seeded Kansas City. The game, which had originally been slated for Saturday but was pushed back to Sunday due to the postponement of the United-Red Bulls series, will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network (4 p.m. kickoff).

One United player is certainly looking forward to the Texas sunshine. "Yeah, the weather should be good," Chris Pontius said. "I don’t think any game should be cancelled down there, right?"