HARRISON, N.J. – If the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls was wild, the second was absolute pandemonium.
A day after the Red Bulls and D.C. saw their match postponed due to a heavy snowstorm, United beat their Atlantic Cup rivals, 1-0, at Red Bull Arena on Thursday courtesy of a late goal from rookie Nick DeLeon. The result pushed United through to the Eastern Conference Championship on aggregate, 2-1.
DeLeon’s winner came in the 88th minute, the capper in match full of dramatic moments in one of the crazier playoff series in MLS history. Thursday’s match saw two players sent off, a converted penalty kick whistled off and the retaken one saved.
The Red Bulls came out dominating possession against a United team that seemed content to counterattack, but the hosts still needed goalkeeper Luis Robles to come up big in the early going to avert disaster. Robles, who was heroic in the first leg, denied forward Lionard Pajoy on a close-range effort following a United counterattack in the opening minutes to keep the series level.
New York continued to hold onto the ball for large stretches and they gained momentum as the half wore on, creating some quality chances of their own.
Thierry Henry and Dax McCarty each had good looks inside the penalty area after quality layoff passes from Kenny Cooper, but United goalkeeper Bill Hamid denied them both. Joel Lindpere also had a low shot go teasingly wide of the far post in the real last scoring chances of the first half.
The Red Bulls continued to control the tempo of the game and pushed for a goal after the intermission, but Hamid continued to shine. Henry headed a beautiful cross from Cooper that Hamid saved in the 59th minute and the United netminder also denied McCarty on a juggling volley from close range shortly thereafter.
Then, chaos ensued.
Hamid had his night cut short in the 69th minute after referee Mark Geiger ruled that he clipped Cooper on a breakaway inside the penalty area. A livid Hamid walked off the field and D.C. head coach Ben Olsen chose to replace Branko Boskovic, who was faring well, with goalkeeper Joe Willis.
Cooper then took the ensuing spot kick against Willis and converted it, but it was called back as Henry and Tim Cahill were called for encroachment. On Cooper’s retake, he was denied by Willis, who dove low and to his left.
Six minutes later, Rafa Márquez was sent off with a second yellow card for a foul on Chris Pontius, leaving both teams to finish the match with 10 men.
With the game on the brink of extra time, DeLeon found the winner when he got in behind New York’s defense two minutes from full time and hit a low shot past Robles to the far post.
As a result, New York see their season end in the Conference Semifinals for the third consecutive season. D.C. United, meanwhile, move on to the Eastern Conference Championship for the first time in six years, where they’ll face the Houston Dynamo.
United will travel to Houston for the first leg at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday.