When the Houston Dynamo walk into RFK Stadium this Sunday, an appearance in the 2012 MLS Cup is there for the taking.
After a hard-fought regular season, DC United is now faced with the daunting task of overcoming a two-goal deficit in order to stave off elimination. A more concerted effort by United will be necessary if it wants to continue its Cinderella run.
Unfortunately for DC, the pesky Dynamo continue to dominate in the playoffs, especially on the road.
Houston’s 3-9-5 road record and -12 goal differential in the regular season are the most irrelevant stats in MLS.
As much as United fans continue to champion those statistics and transform them into some sort of rallying cry, the fact remains that Houston is a much better road team come playoff time. The Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City can attest to that.
Given the tactical acumen of Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, a two-goal lead is almost insurmountable for a bruised and battered United team, but it is not impossible.
RFK has been more than friendly for DC all season. With a desperate team on the ropes, Houston should expect and prepare for everything (including the kitchen sink).
We are 90 minutes away (an extra 30 if we’re lucky) from crowning an Eastern Conference champion. With Sunday’s match just two days away, here are the five key battles to watch in the second leg of the Conference Final.
The first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals did not go according to plan for either team.
Yes, the Dynamo have an advantageous two-goal lead, but a slew of injuries has left head coach Dominic Kinnear in the precarious position of making some tough personnel decisions for the second leg.
DC head coach Ben Olsen has not fared well either.
United’s third match in eight days turned the first leg of the Conference Finals into an excruciating 90 minutes of soccer soundtracked by Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.”
In his postgame comments to the media, Coach Olsen shared his thoughts on the compact schedule his team was forced to play:
I think in the future we need to look at the schedule a little bit. We’ve got guys going down left and right. And it’s not an excuse, but at some point, it’s just survival. We’re just surviving to get through this game. I’ve got guys cramping and half of them are about to pull a muscle out there.
With the crumbling health of both teams a serious issue, there is no telling what the starting XI will look like for either squad on Sunday.
For Coach Kinnear, Adam Moffat’s injury is the most damaging. With Ricardo Clark’s availability in question, does he stick with Luiz Camargo?
As for DC, much has been made lately about the availability of reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario for Sunday’s match. It is likely that De Rosario will see action (via Steven Goff), but to what extent?
After missing two months with a knee injury, does Coach Olsen start the Canadian legend, or sub him late in the match? It is a tough decision considering the match may already be decided by halftime.
Both teams have had a full week to get as close to 100 percent as possible, but neither coach will have his full complement of weapons.
The coach who is able to put together a winning lineup with what he has will win the most important battle of the second leg.
Here are the official injury reports for both teams via MLSsoccer.com:
DC 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 Tan Long (L ankle sprain); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain)
HOUSTON DYNAMO—OUT: MF Adam Moffat (concussion/chest injury); QUESTIONABLE: MF Ricardo Clark (L adductor strain); FW Calen Carr (L hamstring strain); PROBABLE: DF Jermaine Taylor (L knee sprain)
The name of the game for DC on Sunday is score early and score often.
If United has any chance of making a historic comeback, it must start with a goal in the first 20 minutes of the match. Cutting the deficit to one early would ignite 20,000 raucous fans, transforming RFK Stadium into an intimidating, hostile environment for Houston.
There is a strong possibility that DC will be without its best players (Pontius and De Rosario), so the burden of that assignment falls on the creative shoulders of Lionard Pajoy.
That can be good or bad for United.
Pajoy has done a remarkable job of creating chances inside the box this postseason, but like 7-Eleven he never closes. He is still in search of his first goal in the 2012 playoffs.
With DC likely to mount an aggressive attack for a full 90 minutes, the responsibility of neutralizing the Colombian international belongs to Houston defender Andre Hainault (assuming Jermaine Taylor cannot play).
Hainault, who is fortunate to be playing on Sunday following a blown call by referee Ricardo Salazar, must do a better job of tracking Pajoy.
If DC is able to string together a multitude of chances, it is only a matter of time before Pajoy makes Houston pay.
Coach Kinnear has redefined the word "tactics" during these MLS playoffs.
His decision to switch to the 4-3-3 at halftime in the first leg of the Conference Finals will be the deciding factor in this series.
After trailing 1-0 and being dominated by the passion of an underdog United team, Coach Kinnear switched to a formation that allowed his team to take advantage of more favorable one-on-one matchups on the outside.
I predicted a two-goal lead before the series, which would have led to a heavily defensive mindset in the second leg for Houston. As I said before, no one parks the bus better than the Houston Dynamo.
Having said that, look for the Dynamo to add another goal in the second leg of this series.
A repeat performance like the one it had at Livestrong Park, where the Dynamo were out-shot 20-4 and out-possessed 71 percent to 29 percent, will not produce the same result.
With DC’s back line pushing forward, look for Houston to take advantage of a wider field and mount an aggressive counter on the flanks.
That makes the speed of Macoumba Kandji (or Calen Carr if healthy) and Brad Davis vs. Robbie Russell an important matchup to watch.
Russell has done a commendable job of replacing a suspended Andy Najar, but Najar’s speed and dynamic play are sorely missed in this series.
If Kandji or Davis break away on a counter, it could be lights out for DC.
Should United manage to tie the series on aggregate, look for Coach Kinnear to utilize the 4-3-3 once more. The speed his team possesses on the flanks, specifically against Russell, is an opportunity Coach Kinnear should not be too conservative to exploit.
Before the start of the MLS playoffs, the race for the Rookie of the Year was down to two men, United midfielder Nick DeLeon (six goals with four assists) and Chicago Fire defender Austin Berry (three goals with zero assists).
After three sensational playoff matches in his rookie campaign, there is no denying the award belongs to DeLeon.
The 22-year-old has maintained a high-energy, consistent form throughout these playoffs. His two playoff goals, including a game winner against the New York Red Bulls that left this fanatic sprawled out on the floor in shock, make him the lone goal scorer for DC thus far.
(Unless, of course, you are counting Bill Hamid falling into the net in the first leg of the semifinals. I certainly am not.)
With a tremendously banged up roster, the goals are going to have to come from somewhere.
I would not bet on Pajoy coming through when it matters most, not even with monopoly money, so DeLeon’s contributions on Sunday are vital for a United victory.
His matchup with Corey Ashe is a crucial one for both sides. Ashe’s speed and one-on-one defending ability make him the most versatile defender on Houston’s back line.
If Ashe is able to neutralize DeLeon, and Pajoy is able to neutralize himself, Houston should have no difficulty in defeating United.
The last time Bill Hamid was on the pitch, he charged out wildly to take down Kenny Cooper, leaving his team a man down.
The last time Bill Hamid was on the pitch against Houston, he charged out wildly to take down Macoumba Kandji, leaving his team a man down.
With DC’s back line pushing forward and in desperate need of a goal, Houston will likely mount a dangerous counter attack at some point in Sunday’s match.
The last thing Hamid can afford to do is charge out wildly to take down another Houston forward, leaving his team a man down.
For all of his greatness (1.03 goals against average with a 78 save percentage), Hamid inexplicably self-implodes unlike any other keeper in MLS—much to the chagrin of the United faithful.
Nobody follows a world-class save with a blunder of epic proportions better than Hamid. The level of immaturity he displays in the most pressure-filled moments is a bit concerning as well.
With his team in desperate need of another great performance this Sunday, he can ill-afford another self-implosion.
Hamid must display the composure, poise and self-control of a true leader. As NBCSports analyst Kyle Martino told Hamid on Twitter last week, his passion is what makes him a good keeper. Learning to control it will make him a great one.
If he is focused and zeroed in on a shutout, DC will have the opportunity to make its historic comeback. If he is not, it will be another long offseason for Hamid—one probably filled with numerous insulting tweets towards Kyle Martino.
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