McCarty header gives Red Bulls victory at D.C. United

New York Red Bulls took a concrete step toward the Eastern Conference final by securing a 1-0 victory at D.C. United on Sunday.

Dax McCarty decided the first leg of this conference semifinal tie with the only goal after 72 minutes. McCarty enjoyed a free run at the back post and nodded home Sacha Kljestan’s inviting free kick to give the Red Bulls a precious away goal at RFK Stadium.

McCarty’s goal proved one of the few highlights in a game where United labored in possession and the Red Bulls took most of an hour to punish them for it.

United lamented the decision to spare second-half substitute Ronald Zubar a red card for his wild lunge on Markus Halsti minutes before McCarty’s winner, but the home side ultimately succumbed due to its own failings and its inability muster even one shot on goal over the course of 90 minutes.

D.C. must figure out a way to improve substantially to overturn this deficit at Red Bull Arena, but the Red Bulls — even with Damien Perrinelle injured and Zubar now potentially in line from a suspension by the Disciplinary Committee — must feel confident about seeing out this tie after a mature performance.

United coach Ben Olsen made two enforced changes to his side with Bobby Boswell (one-match suspension) and Chris Pontius (hamstring) ruled out after the Knockout Round victory over New England on Wednesday. Kofi Opare partnered Steven Birnbaum in central defense in Boswell’s stead, but Alvaro Saborio warranted more attention by starting up front and pushing Chris Rolfe into Pontius’ role on the flank.

Saborio and Fabian Espindola conjured the principles established during their time at Real Salt Lake to trouble the Red Bulls at the start. Saborio operated earnestly as a target player to occupy Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle, while Espindola slid out to the left to test makeshift right back Sal Zizzo and tromp through the channel.

Those endeavors punctuated a bright opening period for United without yielding a surplus of genuine chances. Saborio squandered the best opportunity when he headed over the bar after 22 minutes as the scruffy opening stages favored the home side.

United’s general wastefulness in possession eventually allowed the Red Bulls to accept the burden in possession and pose more of a threat as the half progressed. There were few signs of the trademark pressure with United more than willing to hoof out of defense, but the Red Bulls found the odd moment to get the ball down and sweep forward.

Those endeavors often petered out until Lloyd Sam created a yard of space on the right shortly before halftime. Sam located Bradley Wright-Phillips with his delivery and watched Wright-Phillips funnel the ball toward Mike Grella at the back post. Grella hesitated for a moment and permitted Bill Hamid to rush out and block with his face.

Hamid’s intervention ensured both teams concluded a drab half on level terms. United’s inability to match the Red Bulls in central midfield or string passes together with any consistency undermined their efforts after the break. New York muddled through Perrinelle’s enforced withdrawal with a suspected left knee injury shortly after halftime and eventually placed United under considerable pressure.

Once again, Hamid proved a defiant last line of defense. He produced a fine save on Grella’s header after 58 minutes to snuff out a clever Red Bulls set piece and then stood his ground when Kemar Lawrence’s rasping drive hit the near post seconds later.

Those efforts paved the way for the biggest flashpoint of the game after 69 minutes. Zubar — inserted in place of the injured Perrinelle — accelerated into his challenge for several yards and flung himself into Halsti with both feet. It appeared a certain dismissal given the menace of the challenge, but referee Fotis Bazakos somehow showed only yellow instead.

McCarty placed that decision in stark contrast by procuring the winner three minutes later. Kljestan swung a tempting ball toward the back post from the middle third. Former United midfielder McCarty ghosted behind the line on the free kick and tucked his header inside the far post to stake the Red Bulls to a largely deserved lead.

United lacked the impetus and the quality to alter the proceedings in the final quarter of an hour. The final whistle left United to rue its incompetence on the ball and Zubar’s unwarranted reprieve and placed the Red Bulls in firm control of the tie ahead of the second leg at Red Bull Arena next Sunday.