Tampa Bay Sports Day

Youth is served, and bags the game winner

Youth was served Wednesday night at balmy RFK Stadium in Washington, and fresh legs too, as 17-year old Andy Najar’s sensational individual effort two minutes into the second overtime made the difference in DC United’s 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play-in game.

“It was a special little play,” said United Coach Curt Onalfo, who was suspended for the match for arguing during United’s 4-2 USOC win against Dallas over a month ago. “In games like this you have to make plays on both sides of the field and that was a great play in the offensive part of the field to make a difference in the game.”

“We were discussing putting him in a little earlier, but we had some guys cramping and we had to hold on to that last reserve for as long as we could,” said Kris Kelderman, who ran the bench in Onalfo’s absence. “We felt real good about the energy that he would be bringing in, and he made the coaches look good tonight.”

United will now advance to the round of 16 in the nation’s oldest soccer tournament, which they have won on two occasions, 1996 and 2008. They have also been to the finals on two other occasions including last season.

This was the first ever meeting in U.S. Open Cup competition between the two sides and the loss was Real’s first of any kind since April. Going 4-0-1 in May, they remain winless in six matches all time at RFK Stadium (0-4-2).

The often sleepy, less than skillful match featured mainly reserves in advance of the two teams’ MLS league rematch on Saturday. But the match finally awoke out of its slumber to produce at least an entertaining finish that included two penalty kicks to open the scoring.

Just two minutes after coming on, Najar’s youthful delight and unknowing demeanor was more than a tired Real side could deal with on a hot night in the 107th minute. Najar collected the ball on the right flank and made a bee line for goal, feinting right and splitting Will Johnson and Tony Beltran before poking it past Kyle Reynish into the far corner for his second goal in USOC and third of the year.

“I was able to get in front of the defender and beat him and the opportunity was there for me to tap it in and I did,” Najar said through a translator.

He could have extended the lead just four minutes after netting that game winner, but his uncontested shot from the right side some 12-yards out sailed well high and wide.

Najar scored his first professional goal in the prior Open Cup round win over Dallas and his first MLS league goal last weekend, netting the opening goal in United’s 3-2 home win over Chivas USA.

“He showed a change of pace that you don’t see too often with a player of his age at this level, and it was a brilliant finish,” Kelderman said. “The kid’s a warrior. His work rate is unbelievable, he can run forever, he’s quicker than most people give him credit for, he’s techinical. “If there’s any room for improvement it’s just tactical awareness, and that’s to be expected with a player of his age and experience. It’s exciting to see the potential he has.”

“He’s magical, he’s fun to watch, he’s dynamic and he came in and changed the game,” added Santino Quaranta. “

United had to withstand a late surge to seal the deal aided by Barry Rice’s two alert clearances off the line, a bad mishit by an unmarked Nat Borchers just outside the 6-yard line and a well positioned save by Troy Perkins with 9-minutes to play on a close range shot by Johnson.

“Barry is a gutsy guy,” said Onalfo after the match. “He was cramping from the 60th minute and he just gutted through it. He is a very, very mentally tough individual.”

After watching the ball being pinged around with marginal results from both clubs for the first 26-minutes, Perkins was abruptly awakened into the soporific match, denying Jean Alexandre from 7-yards out with a strong kick save. Alexandre beat a ball-watching Jordan Graye to the spot but the Haitian International could not get a clean strike on the bouncing ball.

United did have a positive reply however as Jaime Moreno slipped a ball to a racing Boyzzz Khumalo for an equally unexpected breakaway that the speedy winger should have put away at the half hour mark. After a quick dribble easily beat the helpless Raushan McKenzie, Khumalo missed placed his shot well wide of the far left post, posing no challenge for Reynish.

Reynish’s alertness did need a slight perking up far earlier than Perkins’s however, repelling the only other remotely eye-opening shot after a few minutes of the first stanza generated by some shrewd plays from United’s most pedigreed players on the field at the time.

Luciano Emilio’s subtle chest flick sprung Christian Castillo free on the left flank and when his cross back toward Moreno went slightly behind him, the crafty Bolivian found Khumalo drifting behind the play on the opposite flank with a slick back-heel. Khumalo quickly found Emilio, who had slinked his way nicely into the penalty area but his off balance shot was easily handled by Reynish in the 8th minute.

Four minutes later, Reynish made his best save of the match on Emilio’s 27-yard blast that deflected off Borchers for United’s first shot on goal.

The second half picked up right where the first one left off with dysfunctional, uninspiring play resulting in very few chances from either side but fortunately for the 3,074 fans it did not finish that way.

Real did have a legitimate opportunity to jump ahead early on aided by a bad Graye turnover deep in his end, but Pablo Campos drifted well offside on the touch line before he could center it to the wide open Alexandre.

Ironically, it was Graye’s impactful run through the left channel from a simple defense-splitting ball from Emilio that set up the Brazilian’s penalty kick. Graye’s low shot bounced straight up into the air off Reynish after which, Chris Pontius tried an optimistic bicycle kick that looked well off the mark until it struck Collen Warner on the hand.

Referee Mark Kadlecik immediately pointed to the spot and Emilio stepped smartly up in the absence of Moreno, who was removed in 63rd minute, to bury the PK and make the score 1-0.

The game tying penalty kick was a far easier decision for Kadlecik however as Barry Rice clearly handled Fabian Espindola’s cross from the left edge of the penalty area just a mere five minutes later. Johnson simplly repeated Emilio’s effort, beating Perkins to the lower left corner.

Espindola was a thorn in United’s side immediately after coming on near the hour mark, clearly the best and most creative player on the field for either side.

“I think [this victory] is huge for this team, coming off of an AC Milan win where we fought to the end to preserve a lead, and a good win at the weekend where we came back, and now to go through this as a team where everyone contributed,” said Perkins. “I think we have proven to ourselves we can win, no matter what. Now we have to just keep doing the things we have been doing.”

Both teams did create one last chance in a flurry of action just before the final whistle as Emilio’s lunging shot from inside the penalty spot was blocked by McKenzie and Will Johnson’s knuckler from the left side drifted just wide of the far post. Pontius followed that up with a shot that could not find its way through the blockade of white shirts in front of Reynish.