When a team finds itself trailing heading into the second leg of a playoff series, the tactical conundrum can be maddening. Goals are needed, so the side that is losing has to force the issue. But not too much, lest another goal be conceded, which would create an even bigger hole.
Yet that is precisely the scenario that is at work in both MLS conference finals this weekend. In the Eastern Conference, D.C. United trails the Houston Dynamo 3-1 ahead of Sunday's return encounter at RFK Stadium. On the opposite coast, the Seattle Sounders have even more work to do after falling 3-0 in the first leg against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The inner conflict could be seen in the comments of the players involved. During a conference call with reporters, DCU midfielder Perry Kitchen talked about how United "has to be aggressive." Yet in the next moment, he noted how, "We don't have to get two goals in the first 10 minutes."
The trick, it would appear, is to fuse brawn with brains, to seize the initiative without being reckless. That is a delicate balance if there ever was one, but it remains the challenge at hand.
"We have to be smart," said Kitchen.
On paper it is United that has the easier task, given its smaller deficit. But DCU manager Ben Olsen has been struggling to scare up enough healthy bodies after losing both forward Chris Pontius and midfielder Marcelo Saragosa to injury during the first leg. Defender Brandon McDonald lasted the entire match, but suffered a calf injury in the process. Of the three, both McDonald and Saragosa received hopeful signs from MRI's that were conducted. Pontius, however, seems unlikely to see the field, even as Olsen held out hope for a miracle.
"We have to evaluate them day to day," Olsen told The Washington Post in reference to his injured trio. "We'll see about [Pontius]. Chris at this point looks a little more severe than the other two, but there's still a chance he will be okay as well."
But United will be buoyed by the return of one, possibly two starters. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid will return from suspension, but it is the possible comeback of 2011 league MVP Dwayne De Rosario that is kindling hopes of a memorable fight-back. The DCU attacker has been back in training after suffering a sprained left knee back in September. Kitchen stated that De Rosario, "definitely doesn't look like he's been out," adding that he had looked "sharp" and was "directing traffic" in the most recent training session. Given De Rosario's ability to conjure up the unexpected, his addition, be it from the start or even as a substitute, would be most welcome.
United will need all the help it can get because it will be taking on a Houston side that is well-versed in what is required to survive in the MLS playoffs. Not only did the Dynamo reach last year's MLS Cup final, but it has already navigated its way through a similar scenario in the previous round, when it took a two-goal lead into its second leg match against Sporting Kansas City. Houston lost the return leg 1-0, but it was enough to claim a 2-1 aggregate victory.
"I think the Kansas City game prepared us well, and now we kind of know what to expect," said Dynamo forward Will Bruin on Thursday's conference call. "There's going to be times where they're just attacking, attacking, and we're going to have to weather the storm at times."
Houston may have to do that with some different faces, as there are some major concerns about the state of its midfield. Midfielder Adam Moffat is recovering from a concussion although he has returned to training, and while Ricardo Clark could be the one to replace him, the former Eintracht Frankfurt man is also trying to make a comeback of his own from a left adductor strain. Calen Carr is also trying to return after straining his left hamstring.
The Dynamo got excellent performances out of Luiz Camargo and Giles Barnes in the first leg, and will be hoping for more of the same on Sunday. Manager Dominic Kinnear might also be looking for Brad Davis to slide into the center of midfield -- where he often operates anyway -- and help Houston manage the tempo through the kind of possession that proved elusive in the second leg against Kansas City.
Out west, the challenges for the Sounders are more complicated, and not just because they trail L.A. by three goals. In its last two games in particular, the Galaxy has thrived on the counterattack, with Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Designated Lurker Mike Magee all in epic form. Given that Seattle will have to push the game, it could end up leaving its backline exposed, much like it did in the first leg when L.A. hit the Sounders twice -- and it could have been more -- on the break.
The problem is that the moment a defender decides to step to Donovan or David Beckham, someone like Sean Franklin or Magee ends up punishing a defense with a goal or killer assist.
"You've got to pick your poison there," said Seattle midfielder Brad Evans on a Thursday's conference call. "Do you stay with the runner that had two assists, or do you stay with [Beckham] who is starting the whole play and can pretty much pick out any player he wants on the field? It's difficult. It definitely is.
"We looked at it on film and it's six of one, half-dozen of the other. You'd like to say you mark up on the DPs first and kind of work your way down and hopefully Sean Franklin finds himself offside a couple of times, and you kind of get away with one there."
For Evans, the key is for Seattle to make the most of the chances that does create. Sometimes that could mean simply getting a stoppage of play in the offensive third, the better to stop L.A.'s attack from reaching light speed.
That is about as difficult as it sounds given the Galaxy's undeniable ability on the ball. And even though Juninho is battling an Achilles injury, manager Bruce Arena can call on the likes of Marcelo Sarvas to come in and keep the L.A. attack motoring along, whether the team is playing at home or away. A hamstring injury to Donovan has called his availability into question, but even that won’t change L.A.'s approach.
"We won't be going there to park the bus, and getting everybody behind the ball, and just letting Seattle bombard us for the whole game," Keane told reporters. "We'll be sensible, but as much as we can, try to catch them in the way that we play, which is a quick counterattack."
Seattle manager Sigi Schmid had hoped that a full week between games would see him get back some of his walking wounded, but the early reports are decidedly mixed. Forward Eddie Johnson appears good to go, which will no doubt please his struggling frontline partner, Fredy Montero. But the options in the back remain limited, with Marc Burch suspended and Leo Gonzalez trying to come back from a hamstring train. The status of injured midfielder Mauro Rosales is up in the air as well, making a comeback along the lines of last year's near-miss against Real Salt Lake less likely.
But the Sounders have no choice but to give it everything they have, regardless of who is available.
"Sometimes it's a little bit easier when you know what's at stake," said Evans. "You play a little more free, in front of own crowd especially. Hopefully we get a result."