Drilling down on: at D.C. United 1, New York Red Bulls 1

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Two own goals and a side trip into Crazy Town for one young D.C. United man made for a rather strange evening at RFK Stadium as the home team and the New York Red Bulls began their two-game series with a 1-1 draw.

It’s clearly “advantage New York” at this point – assuming all the lights are back on in Harrison, N.J., and the Red Bulls can host Wednesday’s second leg as planned. The teams are schedule to decide their Eastern Conference semifinal series at Red Bull Arena four nights from now.

Man of the Match: The match produced a lot of “good,” and just a little bit of “pretty good.” The men who helped create D.C. United’s goal, left back Chris Korb and striker Lionard Pajoy, both offered something in effort and trouble-making for the opposition, for instance. But it was Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles who contributed perhaps one or two more significant moments, saving five times for the visitors.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Kids do the darndest things, don’t they? Three of the least experienced starters helped decide this one, in some cases by not keeping their young wits about them.

We can start with Andy Najar’s mad moment – and what a silly boy he was! Referee Jair Marrufo was reaching into his top pocket to caution the 19-year-old Honduran, who has been magnificent as a right back since making the switch out of midfield late in the year. He had just tripped up Joel Lindpere in what appeared to be a tactical foul – the very kind that deserves a caution.

So, do you take your yellow card and move on? Or do you … What? Throw the ball at the referee?

What could Najar have been thinking, leaving his team to play about 20 minutes a man down? (Oh, additional games are ahead for that one.)

He wasn’t the only youngster struggling.   Heck, he wasn’t even the only right back.

New York’s Conor Lade had a rough night, with an early yellow card while trying to deal with Chris Pontius (which is no easy job, of course). Later, the young right back’s hand ball gave DCU a penalty kick, and he nearly gave away a goal with a ridiculous pass into the middle of the field.

And then there was Bill Hamid, D.C. United’s 21-year-old starter in goal – a man who can stop local supporters’ hearts with his big saves or break hearts with his blunders.

A headed ball near Hamid’s goal line off a corner kick should have been a routine play. But Hamid appeared to attempt to catch the ball with one hand and … disaster.

He lost his balance and fell into goal with the ball, and that was that in a 1-1 draw.

No one in MLS does drama like the Red Bulls.

The night started with Kenny Cooper’s benching. So, his team-leading 18 goals were on the bench, and it sounded like Cooper’s inability to be a better target man was part of the reasoning – never mind that he’s never been a good target man. And never mind that replacement Sebastien Le Toux is anything but a target man.

But that little personnel subplot moved quickly to the back burner at halftime with Rafa Marquez’s halftime removal. (Sigh. Yes, we are talking about Rafa Marquez. Again.)

The old “precautionary, due to calf strain” was cited officially as the reason. But NBC’s Kyle Martino had spotted Marquez and manager Hans Backe arguing as they left the field at the break. So, excuse us for believing that was probably more responsible than a nebulous calf issue for Marquez’s latest bit of potentially distracting business.

Truly – what can be the point of continuing to put up with that guy?

Did it affect things Saturday? Well, Heath Pearce had to slide over from left back. Roy Miller, rusty from inactivity, replaced Pearce at left back and was responsible for the own goal, as his body shape was twisted slightly out of place on Korb’s well-placed cross.

So, yes. Kind of.

Goalkeepers are ruling the playoffs. Nick Rimando was outstanding for Real Salt Lake. Michael Gspurning was everything he needed to be for Seattle. Tally Hall got the job done for Houston.

And then there was Robles in the New York net – in just his fifth start this year, no less, making him the least likely hero of the glove. Not bad at all for a man who had pretty much tumbled out of professional soccer just a few months ago.

But there he was Saturday, stretching athletically to turn away Korb’s early blast. (Mark that save as best of Robles’ night.)  He guessed correctly to push aside Pontius’ first-half penalty kick, and he valiantly took one in the gut later as he thwarted Pontius from point blank range.

Packaged for take-away

  • Kenny Cooper, scorer of 18 goals this year, did replace the generally ineffective Sebastien Le Toux after 81 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, Thierry Henry? It wouldn’t be fair to call him a “passenger” in this one, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.
  • Perhaps Henry, wise in the game as he is, was saving something for Wednesday?
  • Dax McCarty had a brilliant season as New York’s holding midfielder. But it easy to see why Backe like Teemu Tainio in there (with McCarty again dispatched to the right.) Tainio doesn’t offer nearly as much in getting New York into the offense, but his tackling was the best on the field Saturday. He certainly does make that area an uncomfortable place for opposition attackers.
  • Outside of Najar (before the devil took over his body), Korb, Pontius and Pajoy … the rest of D.C. United’s men? Meh.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —