Joe Willis and Nick DeLeon Play Heroes as DC Advance to East Finals

DC United vs New York Red Bulls game was postponed on Wednesday night due to the nor’easter Athena and the high volumes of snow on the pitch. The field was deemed unplayable and unsafe for its players, so the game began on Thursday night. Ben Olsen said in an interview “I’m baffled. Have you seen the field? It looks fine to me.” Needless to say, Hans Backe was all for canceling the game, while Ben Olsen wanted to play the game in the snow, especially for all of the fans that had taken the ride from the nations capital, and those who attended from the NY and NJ area. For DC United, Lewis Neal and Robbie Russell were injected into the lineup for the ineligible Andy Najar (red card) and Chris Korb (leg injury). Both New York and DC came into the game respecting one another’s attacking options but DC United definitely needed to high press the Red Bulls back line much more.

Joe Willis celebrates his penalty save

The first real chance of the first half came in the 4th minute as Nick DeLeon drove down the right hand side of the field and found a streaking Lionard Pajoy who got to the near post too soon as was forced to make an acrobatic, cheeky back heel which was saved by Robles. Pajoy was a constant threat in the first half with his movement and against Holgersson, he was able to breeze by him with his turns and passes to Chris Pontius. DC should have capitalized on their chance because immediately after New York was holding the ball much more, with Lindpere creating more space for the fullbacks causing a much more open DC United back line. DC’s start of the match came off very conservative with not attacking forward much. Chris Pontius did not get in any advanced positions to create any real threats, and at the same time Lewis Neal did not look comfortable at all in the back. Foreshadowing the second half, Nick DeLeon picked up the slack with the absence of Andy Najar along the flanks, while Robbie Russell provided crosses and excellent passes to the midfield. The 19th minute saw an excellent save by Hamid by a lay off from Kenny Cooper as Thierry Henry was given so much space in the midfield to dribble. Again in the 28th minute another series of chances from the Red Bulls somehow stayed out of the net. Brandon McDonald was a force to be reckoned with in the back and there were key exchanges between him and Tim Cahill. If there is one thing McDonald should take away from this match: don’t get Tim Cahill mad because it only adds fuel to the fire.  With that, marked a goalless firs half.         

An the second half is when the game became even more interesting. If DC were to be successful, Pontius needed to be more involved and in order for that to happen, Boskovic must help him. Pontius was not really himself during the entirety of the game, but was always seen running to get into position, which every captain should do. Connor Lade was definitely the weak link at the back for NY. Further up the pitch, Thierry Henry proved he still has the pace he once had at Arsenal and Barcelona, but had no goals to show for it. In the 60th minute, Henry had a great header that went just wide of the outstretched Bill Hamid, with New York having the clear advantage. The 65th minute saw a wonder save by Bill Hamid off of his shoulder on Dax McCarty to keep the score level 0-0. Hamid sports a 1.03 goals against average this season, which will be very important down the stretch if DC are to win the MLS Cup.

The match flipped on its head in the 69th minute when Bill Hamid was issued a red card for his challenge on Kenny Cooper on a break away. Cooper had snuck behind DC’s back line and pushed the ball beyond Hamid, when he then seemed to trip up Cooper. Being the last man back, a red card for Hamid seemed to be the right card. With that, back up DC goalkeeper, Joe Willis came in on a minutes notice, and that’s when drama in Red Bull Arena escalated. In the start of the season, Willis played in many games when Hamid was injured, so Olsen’s Army had faith. Prior to the penalty kick, Kenny Cooper was a perfect 10 of 10 from the spot, but that would all change. Cooper stepped up to the spot, and scored: or so we thought. The stutter step that Kenny Cooper uses caused encroachment by Thierry Henry resulting in referee Geiger to call the penalty kick back to be retaken. So again, Cooper lined up in the 74th minute: Willis proved a hero. Willis made a diving save to the right and the crowd erupted. Down to ten men, and without their starting goalkeeper, DC looked vulnerable.

Until Chris Pontius showed up on the scene. Despite being a man down, Chris Pontius’ shot in the 76th minute went just wide setting the precedent that United would not go down without a fight. Shortly after, Rafa Marquez was issued a second yellow for an elbow in Chris Pontius’ face, and then we were even at ten a piece. The game seemed a stalemate, and to be eventually heading to extra time, and who knows, penalties. But, since the absence of Dwayne De Rosario, DC United have rallied together. Ben Olsen has instilled a killer mentality in his group of players and seems to always play the right set of players together, at the right moments. And with that, in the 88th minute, Nick DeLeon provided a spark. Not only was Joe Willis a hero, Nick DeLeon saved the day with his strike. Robbie Russell found himself in an advanced position then playing an excellent through ball between Holgersson and Lade for the onrushing Nick DeLeon whose shot near post but DC up 1-0 as stoppage time loomed. Red Bull Arena then erupted with the rookie’s 7th goal of the season. DeLeon ran to the corner flag, looked to the sky and to the DC fans who made the trek to Red Bull Arena who just had so much emotion on his face. With four added minutes, DC packed its box and cleared every ball possible.  And the final whistle blew. DC United triumphed over the star filled squad of the New York Red Bulls, to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Houston Dynamo.

DC’s next game is on Sunday November 11th in BBVA Stadium at 4pm, and the second leg is Sunday November 18th, at RFK Stadium with the winner of the two legged series advancing to the MLS Cup Final. Since De Rosario’s absence from the lineup, United are now still undefeated at 6-0-3. However, DC are not out of the water yet with a very strong Houston team, and playing without Hamid for the next match as well as Najar may be seeing further punishment in which we will wait to hear about his suspension. DC will look to have full confidence in themselves after tonights win, and also in Joe Willis who will hopefully assert himself in one of the biggest games of his life.

Last but not least, my DC United Man of the Match: Nick DeLeon. Nick DeLeon is not only the Man of the Match because of his decisive strike to send DC to its first Eastern Conference Finals since 2006, but because of his tireless effort all game long. DeLeon knew he would be called upon more with the absence of Najar and found himself creating attack after attack and is most definitely not playing like a rookie.

Look for my preview within the next few days concerning DC United’s Eastern Conference Final Leg One match against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA. MLS Playoff soccer is starting to heat up, and its only going to get more intense as the days go on.

(image courtesy of Getty Images)

Dustyn Richardson

About Dustyn Richardson

Managing editor and Houston Dynamo writer for Total-MLS. Fan of all Houston sports teams and Manchester United supporter. Still angry at Bud Selig for moving the Astros to the American League.