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DC United’s struggles continue in loss to NYC FC

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With players being rested and the opponent in torrid form, DC United carried a slim margin of error into Wednesday’s match against New York City FC at Audi Field.

United could not afford to continue granting goals off set pieces, yet it did. It couldn’t afford to squander scoring opportunities, yet it hit each post in the first half and missed a golden chance in the second.

The result smarted: a 2-0 defeat before an announced 16,073.

The visitors went ahead in the sixth minute on a corner kick and, seconds before intermission, converted a penalty kick following a handball on a corner kick.

“We have a lot of growing up to do still as a team,” defender Brendan Hines-Ike said. “We have to be better in certain moments. It starts with stopping granting these f—ing set pieces.”

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United (4-6-1) has allowed eight goals directly or indirectly off free kicks or corner kicks — and that’s not counting Hines-Ike’s handball on a corner that led to Valentín Castellanos’s penalty kick Wednesday.

“I need to look at myself as well and say, ‘Hey, do we need to change something?’ ” interim coach Chad Ashton said. “Because right now we are not good on defensive set pieces. It’s as simple as that. We are giving away points because we are not taking care of defensive set pieces.”

Wing back Brad Smith said United needs the proper “mentality to win set pieces. You’ve got to want to come and win the ball. Maybe we need to set up differently. It’s a bunch of everything all in one.”

On the first goal, Santiago Rodríguez slipped a corner kick back to Chris Gloster, who crossed to the near post. Alexander Callens slipped away from Donovan Pines and gained inside position on Tony Alfaro for an unchallenged six-yard header.

Deep in stoppage time, Hines-Ike inadvertently hit the ball with his hand. Referee Chris Penso missed the initial contact but upon video replay awarded the penalty kick.

Castellanos, MLS’s 2021 scoring champion, converted with a soft chip into the middle of the net as Rafael Romo dived to his right.

On the restart, I thought blew the halftime whistle. It was a crushing end to the half for United, which in the first 13 minutes nearly scored twice. Smith’s angled roller hit the right post from six yards, and Sofiane Djeffal’s 22-yard one-timer took a deflection and hit the left post.

“If we score that first goal, that can change the game,” Djeffal said. “It’s definitely frustrating, but it’s also a positive thing: We are able to create chances against big teams, against teams that are going to play for the MLS Cup by the end of the year.”

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New York City FC (6-3-2) extended its unbeaten stretch to six matches (5-0-1) and stretched a strong run against United to 5-1-2.

Amid a crowded schedule, though, Ashton withheld some regulars from the starting lineup, including Greek star Taxi Fountas. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid and wing back Julian Gressel also watched.

United will finish this busy stretch Saturday afternoon against visiting Toronto FC. The game-time temperature is expected to be in the mid-90s, perhaps adding to the decision to hold back players Wednesday. Ashton said he made these moves to ensure his top players can go 90 minutes this weekend.

Gressel started each of the first 10 matches and played all but 66 minutes. Fountas has been fabulous since his arrival from him last month, but after he played sparingly with Rapid Vienna in 2022, Ashton has made a concerted effort to build up his stamina from him and not exhaust him.

As for Hamid, Ashton said he is trying to “create a competition” with newcomer Romo and “give them both a crack at the starting spot and see if someone wins it full-time.” Romo made two fine saves in the first half.

Fountas and Gressel entered at the start of the second, but the visitors were largely unfazed. Keeper Sean Johnson wasn’t tested until the 76th minute, when he made a slap save. Five minutes later, a free-running Fountas missed the far corner by a whisker.

Here’s what else to know about United’s loss:

Since winning eight of nine home matches between late May and late September last year, United is 4-6-1 at Audi Field, including 3-4-0 this season. That does not include a 3-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls in the US Open Cup last week.

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At halftime, United honored Bolivian playmaker Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry, who on Saturday in Frisco, Tex., will become the sixth former DC player inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Former teammates Jaime Moreno and Ben Olsen participated in the ceremony.

The other United Hall of Famers are Moreno, Eddie Pope, Earnie Stewart, Jeff Agoos, John Harkes, executive Kevin Payne and coach Bruce Arena.

This year’s inductees include Clint Dempsey, Shannon Boxx, Linda Hamilton and referee Esse Baharmast.

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