The stage was set for the Red Bulls' bogeyman to strike again.
In the 32nd minute of Saturday night’s Eastern Conference semifinal first leg at RFK Stadium, D.C. United forward Chris Pontius – who scored against New York five times this season – stood over the penalty spot as the energetic crowd anticipated a go-ahead goal in the aggregate-goal series.
Pontius struck the ball well, but was inaccurate, and Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles saved the effort in what wound up being a turning point in Saturday night’s 1-1 draw.
Along with the failed PK, 21-year-old D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid also mishandled a ball that resulted in the Red Bulls' equalizer and 19-year-old right back Andy Najar was sent off in the 71st minute after throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo.
Despite that trio of blunders, however, United refused to blame Saturday’s result on a lack of postseason experience.
“I don’t think it was inexperience,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “[New York’s] Roy Miller had an own-goal. He’s not inexperienced. … [Pontius] missed a PK. Dwayne De Rosario’s missed PKs, too. It happens. It’s not inexperience.”
Pontius, who played what Olsen called “his best game in months,” explained the inability to convert the chance after the match.
“I missed it, but you’ve got to have short-term memory” he said. “I struck it well. I just needed to put it up in the corner a little bit more.”
The crowd was understandably deflated following the Robles save and even more so when New York leveled the score in the 65th minute on Hamid’s own goal.
Hamid jumped and caught a header by Heath Pearce off a Thierry Henry corner kick. But the D.C. United netminder fell into his own net while holding the ball.
Hamid felt he was fouled by Markus Holgersson and vehemently protested the play.
“Holgersson bumped me before he knew I was about to jump,” Hamid said. “He decided to bump me right before my jump. I guess that’s not a foul.
“I thought it was going to be a clear call. If the ’keeper comes out for the ball and he gets bumped, that’s a foul. But it is what it is.”
While both Pontius’ PK and Hamid’s mishap were costly, it’s Najar’s reaction to a foul called against him that could most hurt D.C. United with the dynamic right back now barred from competing in Wednesday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena as a result of the automatic one-game red-card suspension he received after throwing the ball at Marrufo.
“My intention wasn’t to throw the ball at the referee,” Najar said through a translator about the act that earned him his second yellow. “I just turned around and threw the ball back and unfortunately the referee was there and the ball hit him. But in no way was it my intention to hit the ref.”
Najar continued: “I think the team played bravely after I was sent off. I’m really proud of them. … I know whoever steps in there for me the next game I’m sure is going to do a great job.”
Whatever Najar’s intentions, it was his effort – in conjunction with that of the rest of a stout backline – that held the Red Bulls to just two shots on goal in 90 minutes. Now United will be without Najar in their most important match of the year.
Whether or not Najar’s absence in the second leg ends up costing United a spot in the next round, however, remains to be seen.
“This is an emotional game,” Pontius said. “It’s the playoffs. Things like this happen. We’ve just got to be a smarter team and keep our heads.”