WASHINGTON — D.C. United held its home-field advantage for the Major League Soccer playoffs in its hand. Then, D.C. watched it slip away in front of an announced crowd of 18,732 at Audi Field.
United failed to find the back of the net on Decision Day despite a plethora of chances against league-worst FC Cincinnati, who played 45 minutes with nine players. A win would’ve ensured D.C. United would host its first playoff match, but the draw means D.C. is the fifth seed and must go on the road to Toronto to open the postseason.
“We were not sharp in front of goal today,” defender Steven Birnbaum said. “We ran out of ideas. To not have a home game during the playoffs is frustrating. It’s going to string for a day or two and then our focus turns toward Toronto.”
Despite a strong start from United, the game descended into chaos just before half time. In the final five minutes of the half, FC Cincinnati lost two players on the same play. As midfielder Ulises Segura possessed a ball near the sideline, midfielder Joseph-Claude Gyau appeared to lift his studs to the thigh of Segura. With the midfielder on the ground, referee David Gantar showed a red card to Gyau.
In the scrum of players arguing the call, winger Roland Lamah shoved midfielder Felipe Martins to the ground by the neck. Although the play was not initially seen by Gantar, video review caught the altercation. Gantar showed Lamah a red card for violent conduct and reduced Cincinnati to nine men.
With the advantage on the restart, Segura knocked in a low ball past goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tylon. After review, the goal was ruled offside.
“The first half of 11 v 11, I thought we started very bright,” coach Ben Olsen said. “We then felt it was going to be an easier game and we stepped off the gas. I thought they were the better team in the second part of the first half.”
Oct 6, 2019; Washington, DC, Washington, DC, USA; D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen on the field before the game against the FC Cincinnati at Audi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
In the second half, United desperately knocked on the door for an equalizer. With two fewer players, Cincinnati lined all but midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma behind the ball.
“The objective is easy for them. Their objective is to defend and waste time. They did a pretty good job of that,” Olsen said. “I have no issues with the way Cincinnati went about it. I have an issue with how the referee. I thought he should have set a better tone early in that half.”
Substitute Luciano Acosta came on in the 56th minute for Segura. The Argentine playmaker looked shaky in the first few minutes of play, but almost found a goal minutes after coming on to the field. Midfielder Paul Arriola served a quick cross to Acosta, who one-touched it over the net.
United started the game in the driver’s seat for its playoff fate, but the second half quickly saw Toronto FC gaining possession with a one-goal lead on Columbus Crew.
Despite the advantage and all 10 field players playing in FC Cincinnati‘s half, Untied couldn’t find a goal after a flurry of missed opportunities and a lack of shots. Three of United’s 33 total shots ended up on target.
“In the end it comes down to execution. We are not executing in the offensive third and it makes games close,” Arriola said. “With them down two men, we lacked creativity and ways to break the team down.”
A small spark remained for United in stoppage time when Acosta hit a corner kick into the box that came back to him. His cross went straight to the head of Canouse whose header hit too hard off the ground and bounced over the net.
“That is a play that came from a late run in the box” Canouse said. ” Lucho played the ball in. Great ball. I should have made it. I am frustrated that I didn’t at least put it on frame, but that is the way those games go sometimes.”
The final effort came from Acosta with a give-and-go from Kamara in the last few seconds of the game. His shot hit hard over the net as United’s home playoff dreams slipped away.
Despite the goal drought, United earned its fifth consecutive clean sheet, tying Atlanta United’s league record from earlier this year. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid made two saves to extend his record shutout count to 14 games, which is the same as Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
“When that final whistle blew, the frustration was there. It was a very chippy night,” Hamid said. “We have to let this one hurt a little bit and build up the fire within to go and beat Toronto.”
United enter the 2019 MLS playoffs in the fifth seed and head up to Toronto after the international break for the opening game of playoffs. Fortunately for United, they are the third best team away from home this season with a record of 6-6-5 behind first place New York City FC and Los Angeles Football Club.
“Internally, every single one of us needs to have confidence and use that statistic to our advantage,” Canouse said. “We know Toronto is a tough place to play, but we also know that we can go there and pick up point.”