Well, it took a few days longer than everyone thought, but we finally have a match-up set for the Eastern Conference final. D.C. United face off against the Houston Dynamo in a match-up that will pit one of the league's oldest (and probably its most successful) team against a team that's been one of the most consistent.
But before I get to a preview, here's a bit of a recap for you all. D.C. United got this far because they made the best of some of the weirdest circumstances I've seen in all my years of watching sports. The 2nd seed in the East, they should have had home field advantage for their semi against the New York Red Bulls, but in this instance, that was scrapped. The arrival of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast that week meant that Red Bull Arena, which should have hosted the first leg, would not be ready to host a match that weekend - leading to the first leg being played instead at D.C.'s RFK Stadium.
The first leg, played on Sunday, November 3rd, was a story all in itself - a 1-1 draw where the only scores came on own goals by Red Bulls defender Roy Miller and United keeper Bill Hamid, the best chance was a Chris Pontius penalty that was saved by Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, and the highlight was D.C. United right back Andy Najar voicing his opinion about his yellow card by throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo - a move which earned him another yellow, an ejection, a one game suspension, and an almost certain further penalty from the league's disciplinary committee (a perk of not writing all of this at once: it was announced Friday afternoon that Najar will indeed get a further suspension and miss both legs of the conference finals).
The second leg was originally scheduled to be played at Red Bull Arena on November 7th, an hour before the second leg of the Dynamo-SKC semi, but again, weather played a role: in this case, a nor'easter blew through, covering the region in a blanket of snow. Though workers (including MLS commissioner Don Garber) tried their best to ready the pitch, the conditions delayed the start for more than an hour before league officials agreed to postpone the match for a day - a move that then prompted the rescheduling of the Eastern Conference Final's first leg back a day, to the 11th.
Thus it came to pass that D.C. and New York kicked off the second leg of their semi on a chilly Thursday night in New Jersey, twenty four and a half hours later and 196.6 miles northeast of where it should have. The match played out exactly how you would've expected it to play out: two rivals, tied and in a win or go home situation. It was almost a given that somebody was going to lose their cool, and in the final 30 minutes, several players did. D.C.'s Hamid was shown a straight red for denying Kenny Cooper a goal scoring chance inside the box, and Cooper would convert the penalty kick against backup keeper Joe Willis. Or would he? The referee, Mark Geiger (who cost D.C. United with a similar call earlier in the season), had Cooper retake the PK, as several Red Bulls (including Theirry Henry and Tim Cahill - let's face it, you'd think both of them would know better) had encroached several yards into the penalty box.
Cooper's second PK was saved, and just a few minutes later, New York's Rafa Marquez was sent off after a foul earned him a second yellow card. Still, the match went back and forth, and extra time seemed a forgone conclusion when Robbie Russell found Nick DeLeon, who scored in the 88th minute to put D.C. United ahead. New York had plenty of chances, especially as they played longer than the four minutes originally added, but couldn't find an equalizer - extending it to seventeen years the club has gone without a major trophy.
Now, we all know how Sporting Kansas City and the Dynamo ended up playing out, but it does bear repeating. A rocket from Adam Moffat put the Dynamo ahead in the first leg, and Will Bruin would later add his third goal of the postseason (he also notched the assist on Moffat's goal) as the Dynamo took the first leg 2-0 in Houston last Sunday. SKC is a team that's known for trying to intimidate the other side, but in Houston they found a team that wasn't afraid to match their physicality with physical play of their own - leaving Kansas City manager Peter Vermes to complain about the physicality of the match, along with missed calls by the referees (which was laughable, as if any team got cheated out of calls, it was the Dynamo - most notably a yellow given to Calen Carr for a foul on Kei Kamara that featured absolutely no contact between the players).
With the Dynamo leading the semi 2-0, the teams moved to Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City for the second leg on Wednesday evening. It was a match that turned out fairly close to most predictions: the Dynamo parked their bus in front of goal, content to allow SKC to pressure and attack, while Kansas City played what could charitably be called submarine tactics, overselling contact on fouls and complaining to the referees in the hopes of getting calls - something that seemed to work, at least in the first half.
When the second leg went into halftime scoreless, you had the feeling that something would have to change. An injury to Calen Carr in the first half had already forced Dominic Kinnear to burn an early substitution on Mac Kandji, slotting him into what was effectively a 4-5-1 formation in attempt to relieve at least a little bit of the pressure on the defense. Even a formation switch, however, could not stem the tide forever, and in the 64th minute, Graham Zusi found Seth Sinovic, who put a beautiful header past Tally Hall to narrow the aggregate to 2-1 and give Kansas City and their supporters a hint of hope.
That hope was crushed, however, and not just by what was a good defensive effort by the Dynamo. Kansas City had 71.4% of the possession and took 20 shots (to just three by the Dynamo), and yet, they consistently failed to finish. Only four of their shots were on goal, and Kamara, Zusi, C.J. Sapong and Roger Espinoza could not seem to make the most of their many chances - chances that should have given Kansas City four or five goals, not just one. But as New York would also find out the next night, Fortune is a fickle lady, and if you don't make the most of what she gives you, it's nobody's fault but your own.
All that I've just related is the past, however - New York and Kansas City are headed to the offseason, and D.C. United is bound for a bout at BBVA Compass Stadium this Sunday afternoon. The two teams are no strangers, with three meetings already this year. The home team has won all three: D.C. won at RFK 3-2 on April 28th, while Houston took both matches at BBVA - the stadium's inaugural match on May 14th was a 1-0 win, and the third match was a 4-0 Dynamo victory on July 15th.
While all could continue to this form, it might not. And even if it did, the outcome would still be in doubt until the end. While D.C. United hasn't had quite the level of success at home that the Dynamo have had this season, they do still host the second leg - and home field advantage could make or break the series if it goes to extra time.
While the two have never met in the MLS playoffs, the Dynamo do have a bit of history at RFK Stadium - the sight of their second MLS Cup victory over the New England Revolution in 2007. That, however, was a neutral site - it will not be that way come the second leg of this series on the 18th.
But I get ahead of myself here. The first leg is here in Houston - the final match that BBVA Compass Stadium will host this season, win or lose - and the building that has gained the nickname "The Oven" should live up to that moniker once more. The weather promises to be quite different than what D.C. United saw in New Jersey - hovering at around 80 degrees for kickoff, with intermittent thunderstorms in the forecast for the majority of the day. There's a cold front scheduled to come through, but it doesn't look like it'll be here in time to relieve the warmth - and while Houston in November isn't anywhere near as oppressive as Houston in August, it is still not what most of the rest of the country would call seasonal, and that might play to the advantage of the Dynamo, especially since playoff matches tend to be physical affairs.
As for the play, it might not be what is expected. To those who think that the absence of Bill Hamid will make things easier for the Dynamo, keep this in mind: Joe Willis has played 161 minutes over two matches against Houston this year (starting the D.C. United win at RFK and replacing Hamid after a red card ejection in the July rout), so he does have experience against this team. While you can argue that even with experience, a backup keeper is still not the same as a starter, I'm honestly not sure how much of an advantage this really gives the Dynamo. Willis may not be United's first choice, but he probably does have a cooler head than Hamid.
More exploitable, though, will be the continued absence of the speedy Andy Najar at right back, as his implosion last Saturday continues to haunt D.C. United. While the Red Bulls didn't really have anybody who could exploit this, the Dynamo most certainly do - in the form of left back Corey Ashe and midfielder Brad Davis. United is a team that doesn't always handle flank attacks very well, and between Davis and Honduran national Oscar Boniek Garcia, the Dynamo can hope to turn that to their advantage.
The biggest absence for United, however, is still Dwayne De Rosario. De Rosario sprained his left MCL while on international duty with Canada in September. While the loss of the 2011 MVP would cause some teams to crumble (and indeed, I will admit that I kept predicting that it would happen), United instead went off on a 6-0-3 tear that has gotten them this far. While De Ro is still officially at least a week away, according to the timetable given at the time of his injury, he could be back in action at some point in this series - and with his image on a pillar at BBVA Compass Stadium, the Dynamo and their supporters need no reminder of just how clutch he can be.
Houston, meanwhile, will possibly be without Carr, who strained his hamstring in the second leg against SKC, Jermaine Taylor, who injured his knee in the first leg of that semi, and Ricardo Clark, who is nursing sore hip muscles. In this case, however, the extra day of rest seems to help - at least one player, Taylor, has already returned to practice, and is hoping to be able to play a role in both legs. The Dynamo will be playing their fifth match in sixteen days, and any extra rest can only help what must be a tired team.
I'll go ahead and say it: I'm not going to predict anything one way or the other, but this is a very winnable match, and a very winnable series. Beware, though - even with the Dynamo's record at home, there is never such a thing as an automatic win. This will be a very physical match - and one between two clubs that may be coming off emotional highs, but are also already depleted and beat up. An abundance of cards would not surprise me, and with both sides sporting players that have already received yellow cards in the postseason, players will need to be careful, as any player lost to yellow card accumulation in this match could help swing the balance in one direction or the other.
This could be a match decided by depth, by players like Andre Hainault, Robbie Russell, Joe Willis, Macoumba Kandji, and yes - by Brian Ching or Dwayne De Rosario. It is the battle à outrance of the playoffs - a type of battle that both the Dynamo and D.C. United have proved they're capable of winning. You don't make it this far without being able to roll with the punches, and you don't earn the right to play for the Cup without beating the best. And at this moment, these two teams are the best in the Eastern Conference. Hopefully, the Dynamo will get out of Houston with one foot in the door to the Cup finals. I don't know if that's going to happen or not, but I do know that this will be a capital affair, and a match worth watching.
REFEREE: Ricardo Salazar.
SAR (bench): Craig Lowry; JAR (opposite): Peter Manikowski;
4th: Geoff Gamble
- HOUSTON DYNAMO -- QUESTIONABLE: MF Rico Clark (L adductor strain); FW Calen Carr (L hamstring strain); PROBABLE: DF Jermaine Taylor (L knee sprain)
- D.C. UNITED -- OUT: FW Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation); PROBABLE: DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); FW Long Tan (L ankle sprain); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain)
- DC: Andy Najar (through Nov. 18); Bill Hamid (through Nov. 11)
- HOU: none
WARNINGS (suspended next yellow card):
- HOU: Corey Ashe, Calen Carr, Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia, Tally Hall, Kofi Sarkodie
- DC: Andy Najar, Lionard Pajoy
HOU 9 wins, 27 goals … DC 4 wins, 15 goals … Ties 2
2012 HEAD-TO-HEAD: HOU 2 wins, 7 GF … DC 1 win, 3 GF … 0 ties
AT BBVA COMPASS STADIUM:
5/12: HOU 1, DC 0 (Davis 67)
7/15: HOU 4, DC 0 (Davis 19; Bruin 37; Garcia 62; Ching 89)
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS: First meeting