D.C. United won the battle, but the New York Red Bulls won the war. Finally.
Despite a 2-1 win for DC at sunny RFK Stadium on Saturday, the Red Bulls advanced past their Atlantic Cup rivals for the first time in five postseason meetings, winning 3-2 on aggregate goals in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, Presented by AT&T.
The Red Bulls will now host the first leg of the Eastern Conference championship on Nov. 23 against either the New England Revolution or the Colmbus Crew. It's the team's first berth in a conference final since they reached MLS Cup in 2008, and the series win ends a four-year hex of losing in the conference semifinals dating back to 2010.
Nick DeLeon gave the home side hope with the game's opening strike, but an away goal from Peguy Luyindula effectively wrecked United's comeback hopes in the 57th minute. Defender Sean Franklin scored during second-half stoppage time, but DC were unable to scrape together two more goals to overturn a 2-0 loss in the opening leg last weekend at Red Bull Arena.
While New York kept the exact lineup that worked so well in the first leg at Red Bull Arena, United changed up their starting lineup, with Chris Rolfe replacing Eddie Johnson up top and Franklin returning to right back in place of Chris Korb.
Pushed on by a bumper crowd clad of black-clad home fans, DC probed the Red Bulls in the early going, earning a few corner kicks.
But when the crucial opening goal proved elusive, their momentum ebbed as the confident visitors kept their shape and composure. Goalkeeper Luis Robles gave a hint of New York's mindset when he drew a verbal warning for time-wasting from referee Ismail Elfath with barely half an hour gone.
Disaster loomed for D.C. in the 33rd minute when Bradley Wright-Phillips turned to goal in the United box and hit a shot that caromed off Bobby Boswell's hand, but Elfath waved off shouts for handball.
With United struggling to break down the resolute Red Bulls, it appeared that the first half might peter out to a scoreless end – but DeLeon and D.C left back Taylor Kemp changed all that in a flash in the 37th minute.
United's rookie defender found his teammate with a pinpoint cross from the left wing, as DeLeon ghosted in between a trio of New York defenders to thump a downward header past Robles and push the Black-and-Red up 1-0, down 2-1 on aggregate.
The 20,187 fans at RFK watched with bated breath as DC nearly leveled the series when DeLeon turned provider in the 54th minute. Swiveling into space down the right flank, his teasing delivery was met in the goalmouth by a diving Fabian Espindola, but the Argentine's header flew just wide of the left post.
That wastefulness was harshly punished just three minutes later.
Thierry Henry had been downright invisible all afternoon, but the French star dealt United a hammer blow out of nothing as he strolled past Franklin down the left channel and laid a inch-perfect service into the path of his countryman Luyindula at the near post.
Luyindula clipped his finish past goalkeeper Bill Hamid, New York were level on the scoreboard and RFK was stunned into silence as the home side found themselves with a mountain to climb.
The Red Bulls' precious away goal meant that D.C., down 3-1 on aggregate, would need three goals to salvage their MLS Cup hopes.
His team's season ticking away, United coach Ben Olsen soon used all three substitutions to bring on Johnson, Lewis Neal and David Estrada in search of a spark. But their biggest break was gifted to them by Red Bulls defender Roy Miller, whose rash studs-up challenge on Franklin drew a straight red card from Elfath in the 78th minute.
New York retreated into a shell for the final stages and were eventually breached when Franklin hammered home the game-winner for D.C. in injury time, but it wasn't enough to salvage the series.
This marks the third straight year that the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference was unable to escape the conference semifinals, after both New York (2013) and Kansas City (2012) were uspet early on the road to MLS Cup.