The Union lost a chance to move to within a point of first place in the Eastern Conference Wednesday night, and they would have lost to last-place D.C. United if not for an 87th-minute blast from Mark McKenzie to save a 2-2 tie in Washington.
But at least the second-place Union clinched a playoff berth with the result, and all the other results leaguewide Wednesday went their way. First-place Toronto was surprisingly held to a 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls, fourth-place Orlando tied fifth-place New York City, 1-1, and third-place Columbus was upset, 2-1, at 13th-place Cincinnati
“We have clinched a playoff spot, but this group wants more," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "The expectations and the bar have risen to where tonight feels like a loss. … We’re not cracking any champagne or celebrating like we would have maybe in previous years for making the playoffs.”
It took the Union (10-3-5, 35 points) a while to get going against a D.C. team that was out to snap an eight-game winless streak. A loose throw-in by Kai Wagner in the 15th minute gave United a breakaway and two shots that Jack Elliott and Olivier Mbaizo hustled to block.
The midfield looked disjointed, but it had reason to. With José Andrés Martínez on his way back from Venezuela, and Warren Creavalle out injured, the only natural defensive midfielder eligible to play was rookie reserve Cole Turner. So Jim Curtin shoehorned Alejandro Bedoya into the spot, and put Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson next to him. Anthony Fontana returned to the starting lineup in the playmaker role.
Once the Union got into a rhythm, they made it clear that they were the better team. But United (2-10-6, 12 points) got two big scoring chances off free kicks late in the first half, the first of which drew a point-blank save from Andre Blake on a shot by Lancaster native Russell Canouse.
The opening goal came four minutes into the second half. Kacper Przybylko stole the ball back after his cross was intercepted but hit the deck under pressure from two D.C. defenders. He did just enough to nudge the ball to Sergio Santos, who squeezed the ball across the goalmouth to a charging Anthony Fontana. His shot wasn’t pretty, a sliding lunge that sent the ball up off the crossbar. But it came down over the line, and Fontana got a goal on his 21st birthday.
D.C. tied the game in the 71st on Donovan Pines’ header of a Yamil Asad corner kick, and took the lead just seconds later on a penalty kick by Asad. It was earned in dubious fashion, a handball call against Bedoya when his arm was as close to his body as it could possibly be. The call was upheld after a video review, and Asad sent Blake the wrong way from the spot.
“In the game of soccer right now — and it’s not just MLS, it’s all over the world — we don’t know what a handball is anymore,” Curtin said. “It doesn’t really matter whether you have VAR [video replay] or not. … I’m not quite sure what Ale is supposed to do. I know that by the latter of the law, yes it does hit him in the arm, but it’s about as tight as possible."
McKenzie saved the Union in the 87th minute with a stunning hit for his first career goal. Ilsinho, a 62nd-minute substitute for Fontana, played a ball back from the end line that Przybylko surprisingly left alone, and McKenzie blasted a shot from nearly 30 yards past D.C. goalkeeper Chris Seitz.
That goal saved the Union from what would have been an embarrassing loss. As it is, the tie could end up making a big difference to their chances of finishing atop the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a solid point, but one we’re not very proud of based on our performance tonight,” McKenzie said.