BBVA Compass Stadium, Nov. 11, Houston Dynamo 3, D.C. United 1
Even before D.C. United had fully secured its improbable ticket to Houston and the Eastern Conference Finals, the soft whispers of destiny started to circulate.
They had dodged so many bullets in their series with the New York Red Bulls, how could it not? Never mind that D.C. launched its share of those bullets in circular firing-squad fashion. Still, Ben Olsen’s roaming band of Black and Red youngsters survived.
The Houston Dynamo came into these conference finals also hinting at a little destiny of their own. They were not supposed to beat Chicago or Kansas City.
Suddenly, they were hosting a battered and depleted side in the first leg of a series that would determine which team goes on to the MLS Cup. The Dynamo has yet to lose at BBVA Compass Stadium. D.C. had never won in the state of Texas. Also, there were questions of United fatigue from drama, travel and a short turnaround from Thursday night’s game in New York.
Still, D.C. seemed to have that destiny thing working for it.
Early in the first half, United Coach Ben Olsen could be forgiven for finally giving in to that chatter. His side already was without Andy Najar and Bill Hamid, not to mention last year’s league MVP, Dwayne de Rosario. Adding to the woes, at just 12 minutes into the game, Chris Pontius had to be substituted out for an injury.
Despite all those headwinds, United did what Sporting Kansas City could not. They scored in Houston.
Nick DeLeon, the rookie lone goal scorer in the recent second leg against New York, caught a deflection off the Houston woodwork and touched the ball home.
That wheel of fortune keeps turning, however. It was about to turn against D.C. for the harsh remainder of this match.
Injuries continued to stack up against United. Olsen used all three subs for injuries to Pontius, Marcelo Saragosa and Brandon McDonald. The last came with more than a half hour still to play.
A referee non-decision also played its role. In first half stoppage time, Raphael Augusto was brought down by Andrew Hainault with what appeared to be an arm hold straight out of professional wrestling. Augusto, who came on as one of the subs and who was playing in his first MLS game, had the ball and a half-step on Hainault just outside the 18.
No call was made.
The referee was behind the play, and from that angle the arm takedown may not have been visible, nor the fact that Augusto was ahead of Hainault. The television camera caught the action, though. It was a clear scoring opportunity and an equally clear red card offense.
Even more so than the injuries, this non-call was the turning point.
In the second half, Houston began finding the D.C. net, manned by backup keeper Joe Willis. Willis played a credible game, especially considering the exhausted legs in front of him. The Dynamo attackers were better, though. When the dust cleared from their 19 shots, they had put three second-half goals past Willis.
Minutes after the intermission, Hainault found the equalizer after a quickly taken set piece. While Hainault arguably should not have still been on the field, it was an easy tap courtesy of Oscar Boniek-Garcia’s assist.
Midway through the second, Will Bruin hit a left-footed strike into the bottom left corner, set up by Willis’ save on a Giles Barnes strike. In the scramble following the save, it was Bruin who won the footrace over two D.C. defenders, and his chopping kick sent the ball tumbling through the frame.
Late in the game, Kofi Sarkodie found the net for a third Dynamo goal after a poor D.C. clearance on a Houston corner.
As they had against Kansas City, Dynamo used their charmed home field to build a two-goal lead in the home-and-home aggregate series. Now the “destiny” talk will focus instead on Houston.
Olsen will have a week to regroup. He will have Hamid back for the second leg, and there is an outside possibility de Rosario could return from the knee injury that sidelined him earlier in the season. As for the other walking wounded, the following days will provide those answers.