United handed another costly lesson in draw

“It was a tale of two halves” surely ranks as one of the stalest clichés in the game of soccer. Yet the phrase aptly describes Saturday night’s 1-1 draw between D.C. United and the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium, where the home side’s superb start gave little hint at the desperate manner in which they would finish the evening.Powered by a suffocating five-man midfield, United bossed the game for the first 45 minutes and probably should have had more to show for it than the 1-0 halftime lead granted by striker Luciano Emilio’s 7th-minute opener. With energetic rookies Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace covering ground along the flanks and Ben Olsen ably patrolling the central passing lanes alongside Clyde Simms, Chicago struggled to advance out of their own half as star forward Brian McBride was rendered a bystander for long periods. “It was very good,” said Emilio of his team’s first-half performance. “We had ball possession, and after the goal we had more confidence to play. I think it was a very good first half, and second half was a little bit of panic. I think we lost the confidence and [afterward] came a lot of problems for us.”The Black-and-Red stumbled out of the gates after the break and after eight minutes, Fire frontrunner Patrick Nyarko punished their clumsiness with a clever goal off one of several clear chances granted by the D.C. defense in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Later, United goalkeeper Josh Wicks had to produce several spectacular saves to deny McBride and second-half substitute Chris Rolfe, preserving the draw in a heart-pounding finale for the 15,895 fans who braved wet, clammy weather to take in their team’s first home match of 2009. “We started the game very well. I thought we put a heck of a lot into it and then denied them all over the place,” said D.C. boss Tom Soehn. “I wish we would have come out with a little bit more in the first half because we put so much into it and it showed, because our legs were a little heavy coming out in the second half. The tide changed and then we were on the defensive end. And you know any time we play each other that it’s going to be a battle, and they’re going to compete right down to the wire.”United’s wavering focus was revealed in several dodgy moments that led up to Chicago’s equalizer, as a flurry of poor decisions and untimely giveaways shook the squad’s collective confidence. “We sort of fell asleep in the first five minutes of the second half,” said United playmaker Christian Gomez via translation, who delivered an assured performance in his first RFK appearance since being traded back to D.C. following a season in Colorado. “After they scored a goal, it brought life back to them and brought them back into the game, so we have to be able to correct those errors and concentrate for the full match.”Wicks paid the heaviest price, however, when Nyarko’s first-time shot wrong-footed him as he raced well off his line to cut down the young attacker’s angle after a smart through ball from Marco Pappa. “The goal that they scored, you know, he should’ve stayed in his goal,” acknowledged Soehn of his netminder, who was deputizing for the injured Louis Crayton. “But he did a lot of positives for us too, especially that save at the end on Chris [Rolfe]. Chris has a quick trigger and put it where he wanted to and Josh got across the goal very well. Unfortunately, the one time that he comes out, he gets punished for.”Much like the 2-0 lead over the Galaxy that evaporated into a 2-2 final in Los Angeles last weekend, Saturday night’s result offers Soehn plenty of teachable moments for his younger players. Dejan Jakovic endured several erratic moments in his first start at center back, but for long stretches he and his fellow newcomers supplied vigor and athleticism that complemented the savvy of veterans like Gomez and Olsen. “Obviously we’re disappointed with two ties, but it’s early in the year and I think as a young team these are positives too,” said the third-year head coach. “You learn how to hang on at times. Obviously, the L.A. result was a little bit different, but you’ve got to learn how to gut things out and it’s part of the growing process.”