Well, here we go. Ninety minutes down, and ninety to go. The Eastern Conference final is heading back to Washington, D.C. with the Houston Dynamo up 3-1 on D.C. United after a massive second half surge in the first leg last Sunday. It wasn't the prettiest of matches by any means, but for the Dynamo, it got the job done.
Both teams played with injuries and deficiencies - the results of the convoluted scheduling that MLS has for the playoffs. Teams play rather infrequently during the seven month long regular season, then get "rewarded" with a playoff stretch that features as many as five matches in a sixteen day stretch (counting the last match of the regular season, this is exactly what the Dynamo had to play: 10/27 at Colorado; 10/31 at Chicago; 11/4 vs Kansas City; 11/7 at Kansas City; 11/11 vs D.C. United) - for the record, United's schedule wasn't much better, with four matches in the same period of time, with a number of those impacted by the weather of the Northeast.
They say a team has to be deep to make the playoffs in MLS, and I agree with that. I'd even take it a step further - to do well in these playoffs, a team must be deep Even the best of teams will falter at such a pace - and we saw this in spades last Sunday. Suspensions had forced D.C. United to play without Andy Najar and Bill Hamid, while fatigue meant that all three of the team's substitutions had been made before the sixtieth minute, as Chris Pontius, Brandon McDonald and Marcelo Saragosa all aggravated existing injuries. The Dynamo, meanwhile, were playing without Jermaine Taylor, Ricardo Clark and Calen Carr, and lost Adam Moffat to chest injuries and a concussion.
Taken all together, those names make for quite a casualty list, and it was no stretch to say that this may have contributed to the play seen, especially in the match's late stages. The lone goal of the first half belonged to the visitors - Nick DeLeon and Lionard Pajoy combined for a shot that smacked off the post, right back to the trailing DeLeon, who smacked a shot off of Andre Hainault into the back of the net in the 27th minute.
The Dynamo found themselves in an unfamiliar place - down at home, and were somewhat late in their return to the pitch after the break. However, it didn't take too long for whatever they had been told at the half to take effect, as Hainault put a quickly taken Brad Davis free kick in the back of the net for an equalizer in the 51st minute - a play that was not without controversy (more on that later).
While D.C. United had enjoyed a good run of play until this point (which probably could have resulted in more than the lone goal), it was at this point that the need for depth in the playoffs became apparent. While both teams were clearly gassed, the Dynamo still had substitutions in hand, while DCU was forced to use their last one in the 56th minute, leaving them with players (such as Branko Bošković) who weren't normally used to playing a full ninety minutes.
In the 66th minute, Pajoy sent a ball into the open net, only to have it headed away by Bobby Boswell on the line (probably the play of the match), and Houston quickly moved the ball back up the pitch. Giles Barnes (who had come on for Moffat) stayed with a run, beating Dejan Jakovic on the end line and sending a cross into goal that, while saved by Joe Willis, fell right back to Will Bruin, who converted for his fourth goal of the playoffs.
In the span of about ninety seconds, D.C. United had gone from looking at a 2-1 lead to staring up at a 2-1 deficit, and from there, the hole only got deeper. The Dynamo took control of the run of play from this point, and Willis had his hands full keeping the Houston lead at only 2-1. Still, the match was in doubt until the 81st minute, when a Brad Davis corner that hadn't been cleared well by Raphael Augusto fell to Kofi Sarkodie. Sarkodie got it to Luis Camargo, who played it back in to the Dynamo right back for Sarkodie's first MLS goal and a 3-1 lead.
The match was not without its controversies, though - most of them centering around the oft maligned referee Ricardo Salazar. Dynamo fans will point to a handball in the box by Bošković, while D.C. United fans take offense at his no-call on a challenge by Hainault on Augusto right before the half (the outrage over which prompted the ejection of D.C. United coach and Dynamo legend Pat Onstad at the half).
While both were egregious, it's the challenge by Hainault that is being second guessed. Disregarding the later additions either way, Salazar said he based his non call on what he saw, which was a 50/50 challenge. Like it or not, it's probably the right call, based solely on what he sees (for the same reason no handball is called - you're going to see things on a television screen that you don't get to see as a referee). And if anything, at least Salazar is consistent - he missed calls that could've gone both ways, something that, to me, might have prompted more outrage than a no call.
But that's all in the past, and it is no longer open to debate. While a call there would have changed the dynamics of the match, it will never be proven one way or the other that it would have led to a different result. For better or worse (especially as Salazar is not involved with the final's second leg), perhaps we should start to look ahead.
At first glance, this seems very similar to the second leg that the Dynamo played against Sporting Kansas City a week and a half ago. They're up two goals, playing the away leg against a team that is very good on their own pitch (thanks to Black And Red United editor Martin Shatzer for the exact stat - D.C. United hasn't lost at RFK since March 10th). From there, however, the comparison drops off.
Both teams are still struggling with injuries. As of Friday at around noon (when I wrote this), Pontius has yet to practice with D.C., while both McDonald and Saragosa have. For the Dynamo, Taylor, Clark and Carr have practiced, as has Moffat, who is probably the farthest from ready of the group. The true intangible for the match is Dwayne De Rosario, who has told D.C. manager Ben Olson that he is ready to go for Sunday's match.
While the fact that Pontius is still questionable is a huge blow for D.C. United, it could conceivably be offset (at least in part), by De Rosario's return. Anyone who has followed the Dynamo for long knows exactly how clutch the Canadian has been in the postseason, and with his team trying to recover and catch up, his return would undoubtedly provide D.C. United with a much needed spark.
Whether they have De Rosario, Pontius, both, or neither in their starting XI, however, United's task remains the same: they must overcome a two goal deficit over the course of ninety minutes. As I mentioned in passing earlier, it's a task that the Dynamo are familiar with - and in such a match, that experience could be the difference.
In the match at Kansas City, the Dynamo sat back and let SKC dictate play, holding only 29% of possession. It wasn't the most entertaining match to watch - as a matter of fact, it was one of the more nerve-wracking ones that I've seen lately - but it got the job done, if only because Kansas City's finishing was downright horrid.
The style of D.C. United is more up front than SKC - you probably won't see the 30-plus crosses that they sent into the box. D.C.'s style is more of a frontal assault, and when healthy, they have the pieces to execute it as well as anyone else in the league. This is where the inclusion or absence of Pontius and De Rosario will be most evident.
In goal for United will be Bill Hamid, fresh off a one-match suspension for his red card in the second leg of the semifinals. The Dynamo may still press for another goal - as a matter of fact, it would surprise me if they didn't - and so Hamid may have to lost his rust rather quickly (something that I don't expect him to have a problem with, honestly).
I expect this to be a physical match, for a few reasons. First of all, it is the playoffs. One of these teams is, at most, about two hours from the off-season. There's only one more match left after this one, but it is the big one. While nobody wants to risk further injury, I'm sure that many of the players involved would rather be on the pitch, doing everything the can to get their team through.
Lead or no lead, this is still anyone's series to win, and the Dynamo know that complacency would be fatal to their hopes. For their part, there's talk of treating this as a much win - Bruin went on record stating that they would play as if the scoreline was still 0-0. I think it can expected that the Dynamo would try to improve on their showing in the second leg at Kansas City - I think they will attack more. And while another goal - especially an early one - would still not conclusively punch their ticket to the MLS Cup final, it would make D.C.'s hole that much deeper.
Whether or not this is the last match of the season, or merely the prologue to one more Cup final, it will be a capital affair, the match à outrance - that last great push to the promised land. Both D.C. United and the Dynamo know this, and you can rest assured that no matter the outcome, both teams will leave it all out on the pitch Sunday afternoon. We can only hope that once the dust has settled, the Eastern Conference will have been painted orange once again.
Houston Dynamo at D.C. United
Sunday, November 18, 3 p.m. CT
Dynamo lead all-time playoff series 1-0-0
NBC Sports Network - 3 p.m. (DirecTV: 603; Dish Network: 151; AT&T U-Verse: 640 / 1640; Comcast: 49 / 649)
KPRC 950 - 2:30 p.m.
850 AM - 2:30 p.m.
REFEREE: Baldomero Toledo
SAR (bench): Kermit Quisenberry
JAR (opposite): Corey Parker
4th: Matthew Foerster
INJURY REPORT (as of Tuesday, November 13): D.C. UNITED -- OUT: FW Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation); QUESTIONABLE: MF Chris Pontius (R groin strain); MF Marcelo Saragosa (R knee pain); DF Brandon McDonald (R calf spasms); PROBABLE: DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); FW Long Tan (L ankle sprain); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain) ... HOUSTON DYNAMO -- OUT: MF Adam Moffat (concussion/chest injury); QUESTIONABLE: MF Rico Clark (L adductor strain); FW Calen Carr (L hamstring strain); PROBABLE: DF Jermaine Taylor (L knee sprain)
SUSPENDED: DC: Andy Najar (through Nov. 18)
HOU 9 wins, 27 goals ... DC 4 wins, 15 goals ... Ties 2
HOU 2 wins, 7 GF ... DC 1 win, 3 GF ... 0 ties
AT RFK STADIUM:
4/28: DC 3, HOU 2 (Santos 11, 70; De Rosario 54 - Bruin 50, 59)
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS:
HOU 1 win, 3 GF ... DC 0 wins, 1 GF ... 0 ties