United fall in Knockout Round penalties to end remarkable 2018 season

After tying the match 2-2 in the 116th minute, D.C. United’s season ended in heartbreaking fashion, losing in penalty kicks 3-2 against the Columbus Crew in front of 20,600 fans at Audi Field. United’s magical 2018 run comes to an end in the Knockout Round of the 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

It was a physical, evenly-matched battle all night, but the Black-and-Red got on the board first thanks to a scrappy play from defender Frédéric Brillant. In the 21st minute, Wayne Rooney’s free kick sailed over the box, finding Luciano Acosta, who fired a ball across the face of goal. Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen was in position to catch it, but the ball deflected off his hands, and Brillant quickly reacted and headed home the goal to give United a 1-0 lead. Brillant’s goal was his first since joining D.C. United and the first time he’s found the back of the net since July 22, 2017, when he was a member of NYCFC.

Nine minutes later, Columbus scored the equalizer. Justin Meram rolled a ball into the box, where it eventually found the foot of Federico Higuaín, who finished his chance in front of goal. 

After entering halftime all square at 1-1, both teams traded possessions and chances in the second half without any truly dangerous looks on goal until the 84th minute. The first real chance of the second half came for the visitors when Pedro Santos took a shot from well outside the box and nearly found the top corner. Bill Hamid’s clutch diving effort deflected the ball wide to keep the teams on level terms, though.  

The Black-and-Red's best chance to end the match before extra time came in the second minute of stoppage time. Joseph Mora chipped a pass ahead to spring Luciano Acosta up the left side, where he sent a pass to Rooney at the top of the box. Rooney laid the ball back off for Acosta, who fired a promising shot on frame, but Steffen reacted quickly to deflect the ball just over the crossbar to save the match for Columbus.

The match extended to extra time, where, in the sixth minute, Columbus found the go-ahead goal. Harrison Afful whipped a cross into the box, finding Higauín, who headed it past a sprawling Hamid for the brace.

Trailing 2-1, the Black-and-Red found themselves searching for a chance to equalize. That chance nearly presented itself in the 104th minute when Darren Mattocks, who entered the match as a 102nd-minute substitute, received a nifty back-heel pass from Yamil Asad in the box. Before Mattocks could get a shot off, a Crew defender nicked the ball off his foot to end the opportunity. 

The Black-and-Red had another chance to equalize in the 111th minute off of a corner kick sent in from Rooney. The service from the United captain floated to the back post, where center back Steven Birnbaum skied over the Columbus defenders to get his head on the ball, but unfortunately directed it right to Steffen.

Audi Field was finally given the chance to erupt when United’s second longest-tenured player played hero and equalized. Nick DeLeon, who’s been with the club since 2012, sent the crowd into a frenzy with a pinpoint effort that curled past an outstretched Steffen into the top corner in the dying moments of extra time. Following a Rooney free kick, the ball was cleared to the edge of the box, where DeLeon lined up a one-timed strike to level the score—one last moment of Audi Field magic in 2018. 

With the scoreline deadlocked at 2-2 after 120 minutes, the sides lined up at midfield as penalty kicks would decide the winner of the Knockout Round match, with the winner moving on to face the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

After both teams traded scores and saves, Patrick Mullins had a chance to end the game in the fifth round of the shootout with Columbus leading 3-2, but his shot ricocheted off the post to keep United’s hopes alive. DeLeon stepped up to the spot with the opportunity to send the shootout into another round, however, his shot sailed over the crossbar to seal the victory for the Crew, leaving United's players and fans alike heartbroken. .

Though the crowd at Audi Field left knowing they wouldn’t return until 2019, the Black-and-Red's historic second-half run provided plenty of hope for United's future. While 2018 didn't end the way United wanted, one thing's for certain: this is only the beginning. 

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