WASHINGTON -- It was the topic D.C. United had played down all week, and had hoped to avoid following the first leg of the team's Eastern Conference semifinal match against New York.
Unfortunately for D.C., that topic -- inexperience -- manifested itself in an ugly way on Saturday night, and cost the team in the form of a 1-1 result in a game it mostly dominated.
United hasn't made the playoffs in five seasons and, as a result, carries a roster filled with players who have little postseason experience. Of the team's 11 starters Saturday night, only Brandon McDonald and Marcelo Saragosa had ever played in a playoff match.
Throughout most of the first half, the lack of playoff mettle seemed not to matter, as United dominated proceedings in front of a packed house of 17,556. Then, Connor Lade was whistled for a hand ball in the box and Chris Pontius -- making his first playoff appearance -- stepped up to the spot.
The penalty was saved. And it wasn't a particularly well-taken strike either -- too central and at a comfortable spot for goalkeeper Luis Robles.
After the game, D.C. head coach Ben Olsen defended his star midfielder.
“Chris had his best game in months. That's a good sign,” Olsen said. “So he missed a PK. Dwayne De Rosario has missed PKs. This happens; it's not inexperience.”
If Pontius's miss could be explained away by happenstance, the events of the second half surely could not.
After taking a one-goal lead on a Roy Miller own goal, 21-year-old D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid dropped an easy header from Heath Pearce off a corner kick. There was slight contact from New York defender Markus Holgersson on the play, but there was no doubt Hamid made a fumbling mess of it, spilling into his net for an own goal.
“I could have punched it. The smarter decision would have been to punch it when I felt the bump, but I didn't,” Hamid said.
Hamid's mistake could be chalked up to a loss of concentration, but what happened next was a moment of sheer madness from normally reserved right back Andy Najar.
The 19-year-old, making – yes – his first playoff appearance, was whistled for a foul and presented a yellow card by referee Jair Marrufo. The youngster picked up the ball and, out of pure frustration, flung it back at Marrufo, striking the referee and earning a second yellow within the span of 10 seconds.
“He's a young kid and he made a young mistake,” Olsen said. “I thought Jair [Marrufo] let it boil up a little bit with some tough calls against us, but it's no excuse to react that way.”
With 20 minutes left, D.C. was down to 10 men, and the game would end 1-1, a frustrating result which leaves the team needing to win or draw over 120 minutes and win in penalty kicks on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena in the return leg.
"I don't necessarily think he's trying to throw the ball at the ref," Pontius said of Najar. "But this is an emotional game, it's the playoffs, things like this happen. We just have to be a smarter team and keep our heads."
After the game, Olsen was adamant the draw did not stem from the team's lack of experience.
“I don't think it was inexperience. Roy Miller had an own goal; he's not inexperienced,” the coach said.
Pontius echoed his coach's sentiment.
“Did you see any inexperience out there tonight?” Pontius asked somewhat indignantly. “I thought we played pretty well.”
Despite what the pair said, the story on the field told a different story. Uncharacteristic mistakes and losses of composure turned what should have been a first-leg advantage into a huge ask heading into Wednesday's second leg. For United, its second playoff experience needs to go much smoother than its first.
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