The clincher came with a 1-0 defeat to surging CF Montreal at Stade Saputo. Winless in five and scoreless in nine of the past 12, United will complete the campaign next Sunday against FC Cincinnati (11-9-13) at Audi Field.
Montreal (19-9-5) is unbeaten in five and 10-1-3 since mid-July and, with one game left, sits two points behind the Philadelphia Union (18-5-10) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The difference was a first-half own goal, off the left foot of Donovan Pines, who later was red-carded on a play in which he conceded a penalty kick. David Ochoa stopped the penalty, one of the few bright spots on another lowly night.
“The effort was there,” Coach Wayne Rooney said. “We created two or three very good chances. Obviously, we need to be more clinical. … Throughout the game, we have to be braver with the ball. Sloppy at times, especially in the first half.”
Gutted by absences, Rooney filled gaps with young players.
“I think it’s clear from the squad, there’s a lot of work to be done in the offseason,” he said. “I want to bring young players through and give them opportunity, but also we need to make sure we have that quality, which allows us to compete certainly to try and make the playoffs.”
United has not qualified for the playoffs since 2019 and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2015.
“It’s been an interesting few months, seeing the squad and seeing what changes need to happen,” said Rooney, who was appointed in July. “Offseason is really important that we get the right pieces.”
In that first half, Montreal was better in possession, but United had two golden chances to take the lead. A moment after Miguel Berry’s close-range bid was stuffed by goalkeeper James Pantemis, Christian Benteke’s 36th-minute header was cleared off the goal line by defender Gabriele Corbo.
That inefficiency came back to haunt United in the 41st minute.
Overlapping on the right wing, Zachary Brault-Guillard targeted Mason Toye by driving a low ball to the edge of the six-yard box. Ochoa came off his line. Fully extended, Pines redirected the ball into the far corner of the net.
It was United’s third own goal of the season, which, if included on the stat sheet for players still with the team, would rank third.
Pines got himself — and his team — into trouble in the 76th minute by shoving Ismael Kone from behind in the box. Play continued, but after video replay, Pines was sent off and Montreal was awarded a penalty. Ochoa dived to his left to thwart Joaquín Torres’s attempt.
“Super penalty save,” Rooney said. “He kept us with a small chance of getting something out of the game.”
United responded to Ochoa’s heroics by playing with fervor in the closing moments. Substitute Ted Ku-DiPietro volleyed in a marvelous goal in the 87th minute, but an offside call on a teammate nullified the equalizer.
Here is what else to know from United’s defeat:
Fountas and Kamara unavailable
United was without its top two scorers, Taxi Fountas and Ola Kamara.
With MLS continuing to investigate allegations that he used a racial slur in a match two weeks ago, Fountas (12 goals, three assists) remained in Greece after playing for the national team. He is scheduled to rejoin the team in the coming days. The league has not set a timetable for announcing the results of the probe.
Kamara (nine goals, one assist) did not travel because of illness. Without them, United’s starting lineup entered the match with a combined four goals and 11 assists.
Midfielder Russell Canouse was also scratched after suffering a concussion in training. Three potential starting defenders are done for the season: Andy Najar (hamstring), Brad Smith (ACL) and Brendan Hines-Ike (foot). Backup goalkeeper Rafael Romo (knee) is also finished.
Forward Nigel Robertha did not travel for personal reasons, the club said.
Montreal’s missing stars
Montreal was without top scorer Romell Quioto (15 goals, six assists) and playmaker Djordje Mihailovic (eight goals, five assists). Quioto just rejoined the club after starting in friendlies for Honduras against Argentina and Guatemala. Mihailovic served a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation.
United finished the away schedule with a 3-12-2 record. The victories came in March in Cincinnati, July in Orlando and August in Harrison, N.J., against reigning champion New York City FC, which plays most home matches at Yankee Stadium. United also won just three times away last year (3-10-4).