Naturally, there was heartbreak in the D.C. United locker room at RFK Stadium after Wednesday night’s 2-1 US Open Cup overtime loss to the Columbus Crew.
But there was also confusion and anger, all centered around the 59th-minute ejection of Pablo Hernandez, a fateful call that turned a dramatic match on its head.
Most of the DC players and coaches did not see the tussle between Hernández and Crew midfielder Danny O'Rourke as it happened. During postgame media availability, several asked reporters what had taken place.
A staff member cued up footage of the incident on the locker room’s big-screen TV and replayed it over and over as nearly the entire squad watched intently, prompting bewilderment from some and vocal outrage from others, especially club president Kevin Payne.
The decision to dismiss Hernández and caution O’Rourke despite his violent reaction was the most controversial moment of a disappointing night for D.C. United, who will miss the final after making it there for the past two years.
And it marked the latest wallop from lady luck in a season which has been chock-full of them for United.
“He kicked me on my stomach and I sort of reacted, but I didn’t hit him,” Hernández said. “That wasn’t my intention. I thought that the [red] card would’ve been for him. I was surprised.
“I thought about my teammates,” added the Argentine, who had earned and then scored a penalty kick to give United the lead some 45 minutes prior. “I let them down. I want to say I’m sorry to my teammates, but I didn’t expect that decision by the referee at all.”
The Black-and-Red may not have deserved to play a man down for the final hour of the 120-minute contest. Yet they responded to the setback with grit, matching Columbus with 10 men as they labored to give their fans some joy in the final competition in which they remained contenders.
But they had only themselves to blame for their inability to hold off the Crew at the end of regulation, surrendering Andy Iro’s 89th-minute equalizer on a chaotic goalmouth sequence, as well as their failure to convert two golden opportunities to score afterwards.
First Andy Najar, then Dejan Jakovic raced downfield to cap rapid counterattacks, only to miss the target from close range with Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum at their mercy.
“They had it,” D.C. interim head coach Ben Olsen said. “What do you want me to say? They had it. In the end, you’ve got to finish it out. The guys, I’m very proud of them. They just can’t reward themselves. It’s very frustrating.
“It’s becoming a gutsy group. I just wish we would reward ourselves for some of the good work we do. It’s pretty cruel sometimes when the guys, for the most part, do what I ask. They come out and they fight, they make chances and we just don’t reward ourselves.”