Harrison, NJ – DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid closed his eyes and held out his hands, open palms facing him. He prayed before the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal kicked off against the New York Red Bulls . He knew they needed the help; for he knew this game, like the first in the renewal of this fierce rivalry, would hinge on the flashes, the fractions and moments.
Moments like the point-blank saves Hamid pulled off to keep United in the game in the first half, as the Red Bulls pelted his goal with shots throughout the game. Moments like when he got big in the 65th minute to deny Dax McCarty a simple opportunity to score from up close.
And moments like when McCarty slipped Kenny Cooper through beautifully, Cooper took a touch to round Hamid and the young goalkeeper dove headlong to bring down the striker. Hamid got sent off, even if he insisted Cooper had hurdled him and there had been no contact. But while Cooper smashed the ensuing penalty kick into the net, he was ordered to retake it for encroachment and watched on in horror as Joe Willis settled easily behind his second attempt.
Moments like when New York's firebrand defender Rafael Marquez collected his second yellow card for a rash tackle, after having already been booked for quasi-punching Chris Pontius in the face as they went up for a header. He thus became the third player ejected from this series - Andy Najar was expelled from the first leg - adding to his already extensive collection of boneheaded or unsportsmanlike acts in a Red Bulls jersey.
Fittingly and finally, it was in a single moment, flashing by in the 88th minute, that Nick DeLeon latched onto a through ball from Robbie Russell and won the series for United by depositing the ball behind Luis Robles, against the run of play.
In Washington, an equally feisty first leg had ended 1-1 on account of two own goals, meaning DeLeon's tally put Washington through to the Eastern Conference final against the Houston Dynamo .
Thursday's at times stagnant game, in which neither team pressured the ball much or shied away from physical contact, was bereft of much quality. But it compensated for it in entertainment. Those who had braved a public transportation system still mired in chaos in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and returned after the game was snowed-out the day prior were granted a rollicking spectacle. The 300 DC United fans who traveled up, after 700 had materialized on Wednesday, were rewarded with a gutsy win. Combined, the fans fashioned a playoff-worthy atmosphere, in spite of the echoes emanating from the vast swaths of empty seats.
Yet the partisan crowd couldn't save the Red Bulls. When the final whistle sounded, they stood around, dumbstruck. Head coach Hans Backe accepted a handshake from his counterpart Ben Olsen and stalked off into Red Bull Arena's tunnel, quite possibly for the last time. He was followed by star striker and captain Thierry Henry, who cast his eyes at the ground.
Yet Backe saw good in a bad game his team should have probably won. "I can't in a way be negative over our team effort, it was a good game from us," he said. "I'm quite pleased with our performance."
When asked if the season overall was a failure, for the 17th time in the club's 17-year existence, Backe said it was too soon to judge.
Except that it isn't.
It became abundantly clear that no matter how much money Red Bull throws at it, the Metrostars remain the league's most dysfunctional club.
"We tried our hearts out but we fell short," said forward Tim Cahill. "I'm gobsmacked."
But was it as gobsmacking as all that? Not really. These Red Bulls have perfected the art of underperformance. They are chronic minimalists who defer responsibility when it matters most, exemplified by Henry's leaving a late free kick to Roy Miller, who skied his shot well over the goal.
In the locker room following the game, Cooper just stared out into the vacant space in front of him, stewing over his missed penalty, his face still red from the exertion in the biting cold.
Over in the next locker, star striker Henry bemoaned his team's luck. "During the whole season, that's the game that we deserved to win the most and we didn't," he said softly. "We wasted so many chances that you can't miss in the playoffs." But miss them the Red Bulls did, the way they always do when the going gets tough.
"Only one team is going to be happy at the end of the season," added Henry. "And we're going to be one of the teams that didn't win."
Less than a month from now, when somebody will lift the MLS Cup, DC United might well be that lone happy outfit.
"Bring the challenges on with this group," beamed Olsen, basking in his gritty team's exploits. "I'm not too concerned."