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‘PKs are for the birds’ is just about all D.C. United can say after their horrible gut-punch playoff elimination

Nick DeLeon was going to be D.C. United’s hero. Then penalties happened.

MLS: Knockout Round-Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are regular gut punch losses, and then there’s what happened to D.C. United on Thursday night. Nick DeLeon scored one of the best goals of his life in extra time to send United to penalty kicks against Columbus Crew SC, but just 10 minutes later, DeLeon was the one who missed the decisive penalty. Badly.

“No one’s said a word in that locker room, they’re gutted,” D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen said in his post-game press conference.

And indeed, it was dead silent when media entered the locker room and made a beeline for a devastated-looking Nick DeLeon.

He was honest and blunt about what happened. “I shanked it,” DeLeon said.

D.C. United has been one of the best teams in MLS since Wayne Rooney’s arrival, and they really thought they were going to win this game. The fans did too. The sellout crowd was by far the loudest in Audi Field’s short history. It was deafening in the stands, and it’s still pretty damn good on TV. Here’s what the supporters group’s sections in the Chico Stand looked like after the opening goal.

But Columbus was probably the better team from that point on. They had more shots and prevented D.C. from creating anything of note. Federico Higuain took advantage of some sloppy defending to score the equalizer, and his go-ahead goal in extra time was well-deserved.

It never looked like a United equalizer was coming. Crew captain Wil Trapp did an excellent job of keeping Wayne Rooney in check all game, and the Columbus back line was mistake-free all game. When United finally did generate an opening, it came on a set piece, and from the good fortune that the ball bounced to a Crew striker instead of one of their superb defenders.

DeLeon — a former star player for the team, relegated to backup duty this season, and only in the game because of an injury to Paul Arriola — picked up a poor clearance and took the opportunity to show off some excellent technique. Look at the swerve.

When the whistle blew for the end of extra time, the D.C. United coaches had the penalty order ready, with Nick DeLeon slotted in fifth. “I wanted to take it,” he said.

DeLeon didn’t have much pace as a rookie, and some injury issues appear to have slowed him down further. That’s why he’s found his way out of the starting lineup. But DeLeon is still one of the most skilled players in the team — he’s one of the United players you’d expect to be good at penalties.

He can hardly be blamed for the loss. United wouldn’t have even been in penalties if not for DeLeon’s spectacular strike. Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta, the team’s two superstar players, missed their penalties before DeLeon stepped up. But the most memorable moment from the game will still, sadly, be DeLeon doing this with the last kick of D.C. United’s season.

Perhaps, in a few days, the D.C. United players will think about how they weren’t even supposed to be here, and it’ll help them feel better. They were one of the worst teams in MLS before Rooney arrived, then posted a record of 12-4-3 to claw their way back into the top six spots in the Eastern Conference. Olsen made it clear after the game that he didn’t view this loss as a failure.

“Listen, this group, it was a hell of a run,” Olsen said. “Don’t let this spoil what these guys did to set the right tone and foundation for Audi Field, the next generation of D.C. United, who we are and what we’re about.”

By the time MLS Cup is played and every team is in full offseason mode, D.C. United will undoubtedly be full of optimism. But they way they lost is really going to hurt for a few days.

Olsen summed it up pretty simply: “PKs are for the birds.”