Needing to win by three goals Wednesday, D.C. United got one-third of the way there before halftime against Costa Rican club Alajuelense in the rain at RFK Stadium.
But after failing to capitalize on a flurry of opportunities, United conceded a debilitating equalizer, all but sealing its fate in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. D.C. did end up winning, 2-1, but it was a hollow triumph.
Jairo Arrieta’s goal late in the first half provided hope, but Alajuelense drew even in the 71st minute on a deflected shot. Fabian Espindola’s 89th-minute penalty kick was small consolation before an announced crowd of 8,137.
Alajuelense won the first leg, 5-2, last week in Costa Rica and advanced on a 6-4 aggregate in the total-goals series. It will next face MLS’s Montreal Impact in the annual tournament featuring clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
“We fouled that part up,” Coach Ben Olsen said about the decisive first leg. United was ousted from the MLS playoffs last year in similar fashion, falling to the New York Red Bulls, 2-0, in the opener and losing the aggregate count, 3-2.
“In a competitive format like this, such as the MLS playoffs, you’ve got to show up for both legs. . . . To get out of that hole you dig, you have to play a perfect game.”
United will open the MLS regular season Saturday afternoon against Montreal at RFK.
Wednesday’s testy affair included nine yellow cards, several scuffles, nasty tackles and the ejection of Olsen late in the first half.
Bill Hamid returned to the D.C. net after missing the first leg with a back ailment, but left back Taylor Kemp was a late scratch with an apparent groin injury.
United was the one in need of goals, but Alajuelense was the greater threat in the first half. Ariel Rodriguez forced the retreating Hamid to make a leaping save on an effort from midfield, then hit the left post from 22 yards.
United went ahead in the 36th minute when Arrieta, a native of Costa Rica, pounced on Nick DeLeon’s deflected cross and placed a 16-yard one-timer into the left corner.
Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez dismissed Olsen for dissent.
“I was a little busy over there,” Olsen said, “but I certainly didn’t think I needed to be thrown out.”
United threatened again and again without payoff before Johan Venegas ran onto the ball near the top corner of the penalty area and stung a one-timer in the 71st minute. Hamid seemed to have read the initial strike well, but the ball deflected off Chris Korb and sailed into the top near corner.
Espindola converted the late penalty kick, but United was already finished.
Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.