Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
HARRISON, N.J.– As Kenny Cooper went flying in the air, almost hanging there in slow motion, you could almost feel the Eastern Conference semifinal series slipping away from D.C. United. Bill Hamid’s challenge on Cooper resulted in a red card and penalty kick, a deadly combination that looked destined to hand the New York Red Bulls a playoff victory.
That just didn’t sound like the kind of script we’re used to seeing from this series though, and before the end of the night, events transpired to deliver a far more familiar ending.
After back-up D.C. goalkeeper Joe Willis saved a retaken Cooper penalty, and Rafa Marquez drew a second yellow card to even up the teams, D.C. United what they have done for years. They found a way to beat New York in the playoffs.
This time around it was rookie Nick DeLeon adding his name to the history books of this rivalry, finishing off a beautiful Robbie Russell pass in the 89th minute to help D.C. United win the game, and the series, and book their place in the Eastern Conference final.
The victory moves D.C. United into an East final match-up with the Houston Dynamo, with the first leg set for Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium, and the second leg set for RFK Stadium on Nov. 18th.
The night was a disaster for the Red Bulls, who dominated possession and created a plethora of chances, but Bill Hamid made a handful of outstanding saves to keep the match scoreless.
The Red Bulls looked poised to break through when Cooper raced onto a Dax McCarty pass and ran at Hamid, who came out and appeared to catch Cooper’s leg. Referee Mark Geiger pulled out the red card and pointed to the spot. Cooper converted the penalty, beating Willis, but his hesitation run-up on the attempt led to several Red Bulls players encroaching in the penalty area, which led to the referee waving off the first attempt. Willis saved Cooper’s re-take to give D.C. life.
Then Marquez took his turn as villain once again, earning a pair of yellows on fouls of Chris Pontius to earn his marching orders.
With the match 10 on 10, D.C. United finally broke through in the final minutes of regulation when DeLeon slipped into the center of New York’s defense and ran onto Russell’s through pass before blasting home the winner.
The Red Bulls had one more chance to equalizer in the final moments when they earned a free kick at the top of the penalty arc, but rather than Thierry Henry take the team’s last good chance, Roy Miller stepped up and skied the attempt into the stands. A fitting end to an awful night for the Red Bulls.
The playoff defeat, the Red Bulls’ third straight first-round playoff exit, likely signals the end of Hans Backe’s tenure as head coach. His three-year contract with the team expires in December and with new leadership in the front office, and at Red Bull’s global soccer department, Backe has almost certainly coached his last game in New York.
The night could also be Rafa Marquez’s final one with the Red Bulls. With a year remaining on his contract, and with Mexican clubs expressing interest, the Mexican star seems destined to leave the Red Bulls.
As for D.C. United, their dream run continues and they now find themselves an East final away from hosting the MLS Cup final. They first have to defeat a strong Houston Dynamo side that has found a new gear in the playoffs. That series begins on Sunday.
Here are the highlights from tonight’s match: