Chris Rolfe and Chad Barrett pounced on balls chipped into the middle of D.C's defense to score two minutes apart in the first half, rendering second-half strikes by Clyde Simms and Christian Gomez as laudable but insufficient. Gomez scored in stoppage time but had controlled the ball with an outstretched arm while wrestling with a Fire defender.
The cruel yet correct handball call deprived a throbbing RFK crowd and national ESPN2 audience another half-hour of physical, passionate play. United had rallied despite inconsistent efforts from Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno after the Fire exploited a defensive change that brought Bobby Boswell into central defense alongside Greg Vanney in place of Devon McTavish.
Barrett trapped the ball and slammed his shot into the net after Calen Carr, out on the right flank, dropped a lob into the space between Boswell and Vanney. As United reeled from that initial blow, a cleverly nodded ball by Cuauhtemoc Blanco surprised Boswell and right back Bryan Namoff. Rolfe swooped to hammer it past keeper Troy Perkins.
With four minutes left in the half, Coach Tom Soehn replaced left back Marc Burch with midfielder Rod Dyachenko and played with three defenders. Dyachenko used his touches well, pulling the strings to get Fred and Gomez into the attacking flow and free up Ben Olsen to push the ball forward and run at opponents. Both D.C. goals resulted from Dyachenko passes.
Olsen set up Emilio for his best chance of the night five minutes into the second half but keeper Matt Pickens pushed it side.
Carr broke away a few minutes later and Perkins upended him at the edge of the penalty area or perhaps just inside, yet referee Jair Marrufo pointed for a free kick outside the area and brought out a yellow card instead of a red for Perkins.
United grabbed the lifeline it had been thrown. In the 69th minute Dyachenko laid a ball back to Simms just outside the penalty arc and he whistled a low, right-footed blast that evaded Pickens and nicked the inside of the post a foot off the grass. Spectacular!
Gomez tied it five minutes later by ghosting behind the Fire back line to fire a low shot that Pickens, who had held his ground rather than narrowing the angle, got a glove on. The ball glanced off his hand and rolled towards the goal. The crowd's roar rose in volume into a crescendo as it crossed the line.
But D.C. couldn't muster another goal. McTavish, Olsen, and Gomez all missed the target, as did Fire sub Floyd Franks, who broke in alone as Perkins charged out and drove his shot wide. Moreno headed a ball into the goalmouth during a last-ditch attack and as Gomez tangled with Dasan Robinson for position and possession, his arm knocked the ball to his feet. His shot was true but didn't count.
United did break its goalscoring drought against Chicago in postseason play, having been outscored 11-0 in six previous meetings. It still has yet to prevail against Chicago in any postseason matchup.
MLS is thus deprived of a home team for MLS Cup, and United is left with many questions to ponder. Chicago, the hotter team in the final portion of the regular season, had justified those who believe in momentum - and history -- as precursors of playoff performance.
Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C.
D.C. United 2 Chicago 2. (Chicago wins 3-2 on aggregate.)
Goals: Simms (Dyachenko, Gomez) 69, Gomez (Dyachenko) 74; Barrett (Carr) 31,?Rolfe (Blanco, Carr) 33.
D.C. United - Perkins, Namoff, Boswell (McTavish, 59), Vanney, Burch (Dyachenko, 41), Olsen, Gomez, Simms, Fred, Emilio (Addlery, 65), Moreno.
Chicago - Pickens, Brown, Segares, Robinson, Rolfe, Armas, Blanco (Franks, 88), Pause, Conde, Barrett (Soumare, 58), Carr (Gutierrez, 78).
Yellow Cards: D.C. United - McTavish 61,?Perkins 63; Chicago - Segares 54, Pickens 93+.
Red Card: D.C. United - Dyachenko 94+.
Referee: Jair Marrufo.