Just when it looked like DC’s run of improbable results was going to continue after snatching the first goal in the first match of the Eastern Conference Finals in Houston, United collapsed in the second half allowing Houston to roar back and win the match by a devastating 3-1 score-line leaving DC with a mountain to climb in the second leg in RFK next Sunday.
DC United was behind the eight ball right from the start of the match as captain Chris Pontius suffered a groin injury and was forced to come out in the 12th minute. Already without defending MVP Dwayne De Rosario, former rookie of the year, Andy Najar as well as starting keeper Bill Hamid both out through suspension, losing Pontius seemed to be the death knell for United.
However, as they have been doing for months, United rose above such adversity again and grabbed what should have been a crucial goal to take the lead in this away leg of the championship series.
In the 27th minute, DC’s rookie winger, Nick DeLeon collected a bad give-away by Houston and quickly released forward Lionard Pajoy deep down the left side behind Houston’s defense. Angling in toward goal, Pajoy cracked a shot past Dynamo keeper Tally Hall that struck the far post and rebounded directly to DeLeon following up the play. The rookie’s first time shot might have been slightly wide of goal, but it deflected off Houston center back Andrew Hainault and into the back of net to give United the lead.
DC continued to dominate the chances created in an exciting match and should have extended the lead just before halftime if not for an incredibly bad call by referee Ricardo Salazar that literally changed the course of the match.
United’s Raphael Augusto in his MLS debut after coming on for the injured Marcelo Saragosa minutes earlier, flipped a clever ball over Hainault and bolted in on goal. Hainault recovered well, but clearly hauled down Augusto to prevent a goal scoring opportunity. Salazar refused to even call a foul, much less make the obvious call to send Hainault to the showers.
If Houston heads into the locker-room at the half down a goal and down a man, it’s extremely unlikely they come back to score three in the second to take control of the series. Especially galling is Hainault scored the tying goal for Houston right after halftime and the writing was on the wall for another collapse in Houston, a place where they have never won since the Dynamo entered the league in 2006.
In the 51st minute, DC’s Brandon McDonald gifted Houston a free kick that they took quickly and caught United’s defense inexcusably unprepared, especially since it was the second time Houston had taken a quick free kick. This time it was a pass down the left side of the box to a wide open Oscar Boniek Garcia and the Honduran winger slid the ball across the face of the goal through traffic for Hainault to stuff into the open net and tie the match at 1 all.
DC had a chance to take the lead again in the 66th when DeLeon picked out Robbie Russell own the right side and he cleverly rounded Houston’s Mac Kandji and set up Pajoy for a clear shot on goal that was headed off the goal line by Bobby Boswell.
With that miss, United’s miracle run of results came to a resounding end as Houston roared back right away with the game winning goal in the 68th minute. Houston sub Giles Barnes rounded Dejan Jackovic along the end-line and whipped a low cross that DC keeper Joe Willis slapped away at the near post, but the ball unfortunately fell right to United killer Will Bruin who scuffed it into the net for a 2-1 lead for Houston.
After Willis had made a brilliant save on Houston right back Koffie Sarkodie in the 77th, Houston continued to pressure and United’s defense cracked again. A ruefully poor clear by United’s Augusto fell to Houston’s Luiz Camargo and he sent Sarkodie through again on goal. This time Willis had no chance as Sarkodie buried it far post to seal United’s fate.
United now needs to overcome a two goal deficit in the second leg at RFK to have a chance to win the Eastern Conference Championship and moving on to the MLS Cup. However, should they win by enough and manage to oust the defending Conference Champion Dynamo they will host the MLS Cup as they are the highest seed left in the playoffs.
An appearance by DeRo in the second leg seems to be a distinct possibility and United has been dynamic at home this season, unbeaten in 16 games since the season opener including 7 two or more goal victories and a 3-2 win over Houston as well.
United’s goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad was ejected at halftime presumably for verbal abuse of Salazar and will miss the second match. United was forced into three injury subs in the match and it is unclear whether Pontius, Marcelo Saragosa, or McDonald will be available for the second leg. Andy Najar will remain out serving the last game of his suspension, but Bill Hamid will be available.