FOXBOROUGH — How a team responds when not at its best parses the elite from the pretenders. Many fall at the first sight of adversity. Champions grind through the trouble until light emerges on the other side.
By all accounts, the New England Revolution didn’t bring their A-game to Gillette Stadium on Saturday, a sultry evening that pitted coach Brad Friedel’s club against middling D.C. United. What New England did possess was the mindset to fight through a chippy affair even when aspects of its game sputtered.
Revolution forward Cristian Penilla added to his stellar first season in the MLS, notching two goals to bring his season total to eight as New England edged United, 3-2, for three points in front of 19,371.
The Ecuadorian spark plug tallied the decisive score on a penalty kick in the 78th minute, inching the ball past United keeper David Ousted’s outstretched arms into the top-right pocket. Penilla was graced with the opportunity after United forward Darren Mattocks drew a yellow card on a malicious tackle attempt in the box. New England (7-4-6) hasn’t lost in its last six outings, going 2-0-4 over that span.
Despite leading, 2-1, at halftime, Friedel found aspects of New England’s play unbearable, subbing in Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe for Wilfried Zahibo and Krisztian Nemeth to begin the second.
“We’ve just ground games out and found a way to get points in tough times,” said Revolution keeper Matt Turner. “This was one of our worst performances of the season and we still got three [points] at home. Credit to the fans; credit to the guys.”
Catching opponents sleeping is a practice Friedel preaches with regularity, and the Revolution expertly turned their leader’s words into reality, breaking the ice with a brilliant bit of transition play.
Turner set the sequence in motion, collecting a poor D.C. free kick attempt and sending it to the other end of the pitch as the United defensive ranks scrambled to get back. Nemeth settled the Turner feed, turned, and sent a spectacular ball to Diego Fagundez streaking down the right side of the field. Fagundez cut the ball back to the middle of the box, Nemeth sliced a mishit in the direction of Penilla and the rookie drove a low screamer into the back of the net in the 18th minute.
Turner collected five saves, including a pair of dazzling deflections in the 28th and 71st minutes.
“We have a pretty dynamic front four guys,” Turner said. “You can see that every time you give them some space; they run free and they look really dangerous. The more we can get them the ball in those open spaces, the better.”
D.C. (2-7-4) received a fortuitous bounce to notch the equalizer in the 43rd minute. A stray hand to the face earned Revolution midfielder Luis Caicedo a yellow card that paved the way for a United free kick.
Zoltan Stieber sent a bender that nicked the head of Yamil Asad on its way around the wall, flummoxing Turner who could do nothing but watch as the ball was redirected past his gaze and into the back of the net.
The visitors enjoyed a fleeting moment of comfort as it appeared halftime would come beckoning and find an evenly knotted contest. Instead, New England again exposed D.C.’s propensity for poorly timed miscues to regain control before the break.
Again, it was a long ball that set success in motion for the Revolution and this time it was forward Teal Bunbury on the receiving end, needing but a touch after he and his defender whiffed on headers to get off a shot in extra time. Bunbury’s attempt was destined for the far post before United defender Steve Birnbaum slid his foot into the ball’s path and sent it into the back.
“It was Jalil [Anibaba] who played the ball,” Bunbury said. “He was telling me to creep over and play a good ball and I think the center back kind of misjudged it and I saw that it was going to go over our heads. I was just hoping the keeper wasn’t coming out. He didn’t come out and I just slid it past him.”
United again brought it back in the 73rd minute, incurring a penalty kick when Mattocks was bowled over by Revolution captain Claude Dielna in the box. Asad punctuated the sequence with a breezy goal on a penalty kick to tie the game, 2-2.