The MLS Eastern Conference Final will pit two of the most celebrated teams in league history against each other in the playoffs for the first time.
They now stand in each other's way.
After a five-year hiatus from the playoffs, the most storied franchise in MLS history is back. DC is relevant once more.
Against all odds, United’s resilient style of soccer has carried them to this point. No other team in MLS has faced and preserved through more adversity than DC.
Left for dead after the injury to reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario (knee), United are now unbeaten in their last nine matches (6-0-3). It has not been the most beautiful soccer ever played, but it has been the most effective.
They are not looking for style points. They are looking for wins and have clearly assumed the identity of their head coach Ben Olsen.
Bill Hamid’s red card in the semifinal match versus New York will force him to sit out the first leg of the series with an automatic suspension. Joe Willis, whose remarkable penalty kick save salvaged DC’s season, will likely take his place.
That does not bode well for DC. His 1.73 goals-against average is the 10th worst in MLS and United has only won four of their 11 matches with Willis in net.
United will also be without the services of Honduran international Andy Najar, as he continues to pay for his peevish outburst in the first leg of the semifinals.
The MLS Disciplinary Committee suspended the fiery 19-year-old for both legs of the Conference Finals.
With critical personnel missing for DC, the contributions of Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon will be vital. Their maturity and ability to handle the pressures of a Conference Final will be tested.
DC has not gotten the recognition it deserves, and Coach Olsen has been able to rally the troops with his us-against-the-world mentality in recent weeks. Nobody believes in his team; however, that same sentiment will be echoed in the opposing locker room as well.
DC may feel like they are the underdogs, but the Houston Dynamo are the lower seed—something head coach Dom Kinnear will surely communicate to his team.
This is the worst possible matchup for United. They will not be able to out-coach, out-hustle, or out-muscle the Dynamo—their recipe for success thus far.
With Will Bruin in top form (league-leading three playoff goals) and Boniek Garcia’s versatility in the midfield, DC will have its hands full.
As Sarah Lerner of dcunited.com points out, United's only chance is to score early and to score often. The Dynamo have only won one match (1-9-2) when conceding the first goal and DC is undefeated (7-0-0) when leading at the half.
Easier said than done. Houston keeper Tally Hall’s 0.50 goals-against average and 90 percent save percentage are both MLS playoff records.
This is an uphill battle for DC. The Dynamo have an extra day’s rest and are hosting the opening leg at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Houston has never lost on its own turf (12-0-6) and south Texas has not been friendly to United either. They are a pitiful 0-8-1 all time in the Lone Star State.
The deck is stacked against United heading into the first leg and this time I do not expect them to persevere. They will lose the first leg, but the manner in which they do will ultimately decide this series.
Anything more than a one-goal lead for Houston will be fatal for United. Nobody parks the bus better than the Dynamo—Sporting Kansas City can attest to that.
I bet against Coach Kinnear once and I refuse to do it again.
(Even though I am perfect on my Western Conference predictions, United fans should be elated with my decision given how deplorable my picks were for the Eastern Conference semifinals)
This will not be a pretty series. Houston will advance to the MLS Cup for a second consecutive season, but there is no need to worry about a repeat final.
A Seattle Sounders victory (as predicted by me) will send the Dynamo to CenturyLink field in search of their third title.
First Leg Prediction: Houston Dynamo 2-0 DC United
Second Leg Prediction: DC United 2-1 Houston Dynamo
Houston advances 3-2 on aggregate
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