D.C. United is on to the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals after a 2–1 win in an exciting one-game first-round playoff at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Wednesday night.
New England started its quest to return to the MLS Cup in style, as Juan Agudelo opened the scoring with a highlight-reel bicycle kick in the 15th minute. D.C. bounced back, though, and Chris Pontius brought the hosts level just before halftime, heading home a free kick from Fabian Espindola in the 45th minute.
A missed penalty kick by D.C.’s Chris Rolfe in the 75th minute after a controversial penalty call by referee Mark Geiger kept the teams level, but Rolfe had his revenge in the 82nd. He capped a gorgeous sequence in the attacking third to put D.C. ahead and send the club on, while New England is done until next season (and Jermaine Jones might have to wait a little longer into the 2016 calendar after losing it on Geiger for a no-call on a would-be handball in the dying moments. He was sent off and is likely to face a healthy suspension).
D.C. awaits the result of Thursday night's match between the third-seeded Montreal Impact and sixth-seeded Toronto FC, which will determine the conference semifinal pairings. The top-seeded New York Red Bulls will play the lowest-remaining seed, which would be fifth-seeded D.C. if Montreal holds serve at home.
Here are three thoughts on Wednesday's match:
A worthy match-winning sequence
Ben Olsen and Jay Heaps know a thing or two about MLS playoff classics at RFK Stadium. Both took part in the 2004 Eastern Conference final, which D.C. won in penalties after a 3–3 draw (both actually missed their PKs in the shootout), and with both on the sideline as managers, they witnessed another match packed with action.
Wednesday’s likely won’t go down in the history books along the lines of the 2004 epic, but there were enough chances back and forth for each team to match the three-goal tallies of that affair, and the winner was a thing of beauty.
Nick DeLeon shrugged off a would-be foul after Geiger played the advantage on another incident seconds prior. With Espindola on the overlap, DeLeon weighted a perfect back-heel pass for the Argentine forward to track down. Rolfe timed his run in the box perfectly, Espindola found him, and, just minutes after he shanked a chance to give D.C. the lead, Rolfe came through with a pinpoint one-timer.
You can certainly question (O.K., heavily question) New England’s defending on the play given the amount of bodies it had behind the ball and how methodically the sequence developed, but give credit to D.C., a team typically described as “ugly,” for the well-worked play that sends the club to the next round.
Take a bow, Juan Agudelo...
Something about playing at RFK Stadium brings out Agudelo's impersonations of some of the greats. It was four years ago, while he was playing with the New York Red Bulls, that he conjured up a self-volley somewhat along the lines of what Thierry Henry did against Manchester United while at Arsenal to cap a 4–0 rout of D.C.
Wednesday, he did his best Wayne Rooney-vs.-Manchester-City effort, with a perfect bicycle kick to open the scoring. Like Rooney’s vs. City, his momentum on the leap took him away from goal to meet a cross from the right, with Kevin Alston playing the part of Nani with the high-arching delivery:
Heaps was questioned for inserting Agudelo into the lineup in place of Charlie Davies. Suppose he got that one right (although Agudelo did limp off with an apparent right leg injury in the 70th mintue).
...But the goalkeepers were great, too
It’s a testament to Bill Hamid and Bobby Shuttleworth that the game ended with just three total goals given the number of bona fide scoring chances that both teams had.
Shuttleworth was tested almost immediately, racing off his line to deny Rolfe on a golden opportunity in the fourth minute. Later in the half he reacted quick enough to palm away a long-range blast from Espindola. In all, he made four saves in the opening 45 minutes. He was also helped by his goal frame, with Rolfe being denied by the woodwork on a couple of occasions, none bigger than his 75th-minute penalty that clanged off the left post.
Hamid endured an avalanche of chances from the Revolution in the early going, and while there was nothing he could do about Agudelo’s stunner, he prevented the visitors from ending the game early by making a couple of saves and maintaining his composure and poise during a time when they both could have fallen to pieces.
He saved his best for last, instinctively leaping to deny Jones of a header on the doorstep in the 90th minute, preserving D.C.’s one-goal lead.
Hamid has been a rock in goal for D.C. all season in back of an inconsistent back line (one that especially struggled down the stretch), and on the heels of a 5–0 loss to Columbus, you have to credit his ability to keep D.C. in the fight.