HARRISON, NJ. – When D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls get together in the playoffs, the ordinary is nowhere to be found.
That rule held true once again on Thursday night as United used an 88th minute game-winner from rookie winger Nick DeLeon to defeat the Red Bulls 1-0 in the second-leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals in front of 14,035 at Red Bull Arena.
Also not to be overlooked was that little business of two red cards, a disallowed penalty kick, and a saved penalty kick from a reserve goalie summoned straight off the bench and right into the line of fire.
Basically, just another game in what has become a lopsided playoff affair between the bitter foes.
D.C. United advanced 2-1 on the aggregate and will now face the Houston Dynamo in the conference finals, which will start on Sunday in Houston and will conclude on November 18th at RFK Stadium in Washington. United last featured this deep in the Major League Soccer playoffs in 2006.
If it felt like this tightly contested series between Atlantic Cup rivals took longer than usual, it’s because it did.
“This has been a long week and a half, this series seems like it was such a grueling time period,” United coach Ben Olsen said after securing his first playoff series win as a coach after having won many as a player for the club.
What Olsen is referring to is the switching of venues for the first two games because of Superstorm Sandy as well as last night’s match postponement due to a heavy snowstorm that hit the northeast.
United seemed like a bit of a longshot to have its season extended after goalie Bill Hamid was shown straight red for taking out Kenny Cooper on a breakaway attempt inside the penalty box in the 69th minute.
In stepped reserve goalie Joe Willis to face the tough assignment of having to face a penalty kick on his first play of the game. Luckily for him, he didn’t have much time to dwell on it.
Cooper buried his first attempt from the spot only to see referee Mark Geiger wipe the goal off the scoreboard for encroachment from a Red Bulls teammate.
Cooper’s stutter step technique on approaching the ball likely caused a re-kick, something Geiger is fast becoming know for as an official. On his second save attempt, Willis was ready, and smothered Cooper’s try from the spot to keep the game scoreless for the visitors.
“The thing about that is that you don’t have a lot of time to think,” Willis admitted.
“You kind of just get ready and get out there. I thought the pressure was on him and I was just lucky that I went the right way.”
Fortune stayed on the side of United as the Red Bull’s man advantage would only last until the 75th minute when Rafa Marquez was shown his second yellow, resulting in a red card for the Mexican international.
The game seemed destined for extra time until veteran Robbie Russell, who was taking the place of suspended right back Andy Najar, found Nick DeLeon all alone inside the New York penalty box, just two minutes from stoppage time.
“I just put my head down and hit the ball,” DeLeon said after scoring his seventh goal of the season.
“I wasn’t aiming anywhere. I was fortunate for the ball to go in.”
With the win, United remain on a nine-game unbeaten run (6-0-3) going back to September 15th against New England after Dwayne De Rosario, last season’s Major League Soccer MVP, was injured while away on international duty for Canada. It is one of the more unlikely unbeaten runs in club history given the circumstances, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“When the chips are down there is a certain spirit about them,” Olsen said about his United’s current streak.
“It has nothing to do with me. These guys just come together by themselves – in particular in the absence of Dwayne [De Rosario]. They gelled and they believe and sometimes belief is enough.”
Notes: D.C. United officials estimate that at approximately 300 traveling fans took advantage of the buses the club made available for the match on just one day notice. United improved to 6-1-2 all-time in the playoffs against New York and has defeated the Red Bulls in each playoff series – 1996, 2004, 2006, 20012.