WASHINGTON – By all accounts, this has been a very, very bad year for D.C. United.
Playing without four regular starters and facing a Philadelphia Union side fighting for their playoff lives, chances were slim things would get any better on Saturday night.
And despite a surprisingly positive performance by what was essentially a borderline reserve side, they didn’t. United allowed a goal at the death and were forced to settle for a disappointing 1-1 draw.
The result was massive for Philadelphia, who badly needed points. Though a win would have served them much better, the draw keeps them even with Chicago and Montreal in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“The fact that we didn’t finish that game off is pretty amazing,” said a bemused Ben Olsen after the match. “Belief is a strange thing. You saw it last year, spiraling in a good way, and this year the belief just isn’t there in a lot of ways.”
Neither team looked particularly threatening in a first half that was short on scoring chances, particularly for the Union. Midfielder Chris Pontius looked lively throughout the opening 45, while teammates Lewis Neal and Luis Silva also created decent opportunities early on in the match.
United’s breakthrough came in the 36th minute. Midfielder Nick Deleon – a rookie of the year candidate in 2012 who’s struggled to find his touch during a somewhat lackluster sophomore campaign – collected the ball at midfield, then struck and absolute screamer from 30 yards out. Philly keeper Zach MacMath was well-positioned but never had a chance, diving to his right as the ball stretched the net behind him.
“I’ve had a tough year, with injuries and what not. To score a goal – and score a goal in that fashion, is very special to me,” Deleon said after the match, while also expressing his disappointment at the draw.
The Union, on the other hand, looked rudderless – particularly for a team with everything to play for. The few chances on goal they had in the game’s opening stanza were handled easily by D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
United found their share of chances in the second half as well, but – as has been the case all year – couldn’t convert. Luis Silva missed a pair of decent opportunities, while Pontius and Conor Doyle did poorly with a golden opportunity late in the half. Doyle, on loan from Derby County, caught Zach MacMath well out of position, rounding the former Maryland keeper and streaking in on an open goal. Unable to put the ball on frame, Doyle dropped a pass back to Pontius, who’s shot sailed well over the bar.
Predictably enough, Philadelphia found their equalizer. Jose Kleberson found himself with space approaching the end line at the near corner, and played a curling ball towards the far post. Union forward Jack McInerney – who hadn’t scored in 18 matches – was there to nod it home past an outstretched Bill Hamid.
“They came out and did everything possible to salvage a point,” reflected Union head coach John Hackworth in a soggy post-game media session. “At the same time, I’m a little disappointed in the performance … I’m really happy for Jack. For him to come off the bench and get a goal, to get the monkey off his back if you will, and a really important point for us on the road, it’s great.”
For Olsen and company, however, it was more of the same.
“You gotta go get the second. you gotta be classy enough to have the composure with the final ball, the final finish, to finish off games,” he re-iterated. “You let teams hang around like that and you don’t get the 2nd or 3rd or 4th…eventually they’re gonna throw enough numbers forward and they’re going to get balls in the box and something can happen like that.”
The Union are still alive and kicking in the playoff picture, but will need to do much better than they did on Saturday night to get there. Faced with a pair of very difficult games – they’ll travel to Montreal before hosting Sporting KC – Philadelphia will need two very solid performances to punch their ticket, especially given that the Impact possess a game in hand over them.