On a gray, soupy day in Space City, it looked like the Houston Dynamo's invincibility at home might have been coming to an end. But then good ol' fashioned resolve took over as the Dynamo used a clinical second half performance to defeat a dinged-up D.C. United 3-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday evening.
After conceding a first half goal to newfound United hero Nick DeLeon, the Dynamo rebounded with strikes from Andre Hainault, Will Bruin and Kofi Sarkodie in the second stanza putting Houston on the doorstep for their fourth MLS Cup in the team's young history.
But as so often happens in MLS, a controversial decision by the referee cast somewhat of a dark pall. A late first half takedown by Hainault on United's Raphael Augusto steps from the Houston penalty area wasn't whistled, sending the D.C. bench into apocalyptical rage and leaving Ben Olsen exasperated.
"What do you want me to say?" said an incredulous Olsen after the match. "You know what I mean? What can I say? Everyone in the stadium, everyone on our bench, everyone on their bench and everyone at home saw that it's a red card. It's a takedown, it's a red card."
The timing of the no-call couldn't have been more pivotal. Already plagued with a host of injuries, United attacker Chris Pontius had to retire from the match with a groin pull after just 12 minutes. But then DeLeon gave the visitors the lead. firing home the rebound after Lionard Pajoy's shot had pinged the post. Thirteen minutes after DeLeon bagged his, Olsen once again had to turn to his bench due to Marcelo Saragosa's hamstring pull.
And in the thick of a playoff run that has had its share of zany moments, Olsen was forced to bring on midfielder Augusto, who had a whopping zero minutes in his MLS career prior to the match. From there, Augusto's infamous foul only for referee Ricardo Salazar to wave for play on. Salazar didn't comment following the match; however Peter Walton, the General Manager of North America's Professional Referee Organization, did opine to reporters that it was a foul and further disclosed that it should have been a yellow card.
Lost in the no-call chaos -- United goalkeeper coach and former Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad was sent off at the start of intermission for arguing the decision -- was the Dynamo's inability to break down the United defense. Macoumba Kandji started up top in place of the injured Calen Carr and the lack of a man with pace up top hindered the Dynamo. But Adam Moffat's 24th minute chest injury saw Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear give Giles Barnes some rare minutes; the Englishman's ability to get forward paid dividends in the second half. Kandji moved out wide left to the wing, Barnes played direct and with target man Will Bruin up top, Houston's attack came to life.
"(We were) just moving the ball better," said Kinnear about the improvement in the two halves. "And we turned them around. I think we were playing too much in front of them. Sometimes when the timing is right and you clip the ball in behind it can cause problems. And I think we were getting to the ball a little quicker on free kicks and when the ball was out of bounds. We were losing so there was more of a sense of urgency."
The Texan side equalized in the 51st when a Brad Davis quick free kick was played wide to Oscar Boniek García down the wing. The Honduran crossed it and Hainault was there to slam it past United goalkeeper Joe Willis, who was filling for the suspended Bill Hamid.
United's best opportunity of the second half would arrive on 65 minutes. Right back Robbie Russell was able to slip past Hainault near the end line and his pull-back pass to Pajoy was perfect. Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall was all but beaten after playing the angle on Russell's run and the Colombian's striker shot appeared destined to hit the back of the net. Cue Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell who headed the ball off the line.
"That's a huge play," Kinnear said. "To get to 1-1, we had come back and were riding high. And if we go down 2-1, it's a bit of a blow."
The momentous clearance by Boswell quickly gave way to Bruin's goal just a minute later. Barnes charged past United defender Dejan Jakovic on the left wing near the end line and though the ex-Derby County man's shot was deflected by Willis, Bruin pounced to put the Dynamo ahead.
Houston added some insurance thirteen minutes later with some solid combination play between Luiz Camargo and Kofi Sarkodie leaving the latter to slam home a shot from the right side of the area to finish off the scoring.
Heading into the match, United was already missing its main goal-scoring threat, Dwayne De Rosario, and one of its better playmakers in Andy Najar. Afterward Olsen was left to wonder how much more he could ask from his squad after such a short turnaround from Thursday night and the answers could very well have come in the form of the injuries to Pontius, Saragosa and Brandon McDonald who also left injured in the second half.
"Everyone is digging in and finding a little bit more," Olsen said. "I asked them before the game to dig in and find whatever you have for this game and they did that and unfortunately maybe some of them dug too deep and physically they didn't have anymore."
As for Houston, it was simply more of the same from the veteran squad that always seems to play their best soccer in the month of November. The five seed in the east is 90 minutes away from another MLS Cup appearance and is will do what it takes to get there.
"We all work fight and scrap for each other," Barnes said. "We'll die for each other if it's to get the right result so that’s what we’ve got to keep doing."