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MLS Playoffs

Houston Flying High After Defeating D.C. United 3-1

The Houston Dynamo rallied to defeat a depleted D.C. United squad in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship. Here is our take on what to expect in the second leg.

BY Jon Arnold Posted
November 12, 2012
11:28 AM
FIRST LEG: After going down a goal early, the Houston Dynamo was able to take advantage of a D.C. United side weakened by injuries and suspensions. The 3-1 victory was as much about attrition as it was about attacking or keeping possession. It also means for the second time in this year’s playoffs, the Dynamo head into the second leg (4 p.m. Eastern, November 18 on NBC Sports Network) with a two-goal cushion.

The Dynamo, perhaps lucky to have all 11 men after Andre Hainault appeared to commit a foul on an obvious goal scoring opportunity, reined in the visitor’s attack in the second half and piled on a D.C. team which at that point was missing five regulars.

United entered the match missing goalkeeper Bill Hamid and right back Andy Najar because of suspension and haven’t had key midfielder Dwayne De Rosario since he sustained a knee injury in September. Things got more dire when Chris Pontius, who was key in United’s successful close to the season in the absence of De Rosario, came out in the 12th minute after straining his groin. Marcelo Saragosa and center back Brandon McDonald also were unable to continue and had to be replaced.

In the first half, though, Houston struggled, betraying the fact that they too were missing three usual starters. Nick DeLeon, the rookie whose goal pushed D.C. past New York in the quarterfinals, opened the scoring. He maneuvered a pass through Houston’s back line and put Lionard Pajoy one-on-one with Dynamo keeper Tally Hall. Hall’s goalpost stopped Pajoy’s shot, but the rebound went to the trailing DeLeon who slotted it home.

United and manager Ben Olsen thought his team would get another boost when Hainault made contact with MLS debutant Raphael Augusto. However, referee Ricardo Salazar didn’t see fit to whistle a foul and Hainault went on to score Houston’s opener in the second half.

After the first goal, the Dynamo’s attack was able to pressure United’s reserves and add two more.

MATCHUPS: Giles Barnes, who was substituted into the match after Adam Moffat was injured, was an unexpected boon for the Dynamo. Barnes passed well and didn’t seem intimidated by Branko Boskovic in the center midfield. His performance gives Kinnear an intriguing option should Moffat be unable to return. Brad Davis was solid if not exuberant in the first leg, but don’t be surprised to see him be even more active in the second leg. That idea will intrigue Will Bruin, whose stock is rising thanks to great playoff performances.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty up in the air for D.C. Hamid is eligible to be back in net, but it’s too early to know which players might return from injury. All three players who came out play key roles and their return would boost D.C. There’s also speculation De Rosario could return to the pitch.

DeLeon, who has excelled in the playoffs but showed the effects of a third match in nine days in the second half, and Perry Kitchen are sure to be on the pitch. Kitchen told ASN he values creating chances out of pure hard work and determination, and it stands to reason. He’s a solid defensive midfielder who led D.C. in passing in the first leg. DeLeon, who has become an ever-present threat on the wing, should be well rested by the second leg after admitting he was gasping for air Sunday.

As always, you can share who you’d put in the Starting XI for D.C. and/or Houston.

TACTICS: The two-goal lead makes this one a little easier to handicap. It’s hard to imagine the Dynamo will do anything besides stick to their 4-4-2 (typically working out as a 4-1-3-2) and defend staunchly. Olsen has settled into a 4-2-3-1 after the De Ro injury, but with the personnel situation still unknown and needing two goals, it’s possible he’d make a switch.

Either way, DeLeon getting up and down the wing will be key. Whether he’s putting in a through ball, sending a cross or having a go himself, the rookie has shown he’s capable of doing more than just contributing. If Pontius and De Ro are both absent, much of the onus falls on him. Robbie Russell, a defender for D.C., pointed out that it doesn’t matter how the goals come so long as they count. “We may not be the prettiest, we may not do the things the way everybody wants sometimes, but we fight, and we are going to fight next weekend,” he told the Washington Post.

PREDICTION: United have a mountain to climb, but they’ll take inspiration from the opening half. Olsen might not be forced to blow all his substitutions early, but he will have to get creative with his starting XI as the team won’t be at full strength. Meanwhile, his counterpart Kinnear has this series right where he likes it. The Dynamo’s defensive cohesion will continue and be enough to put them into the MLS Cup for the second straight season.

READER FEEDBACK: What’s your view of Ricardo Salazar’s no call on Hainault? What does United have to do to turn the tide in the second leg? Is there a better playoff manager in any sport than Dom Kinnear? We truly want to hear your thoughts, so sound off in the comments below.

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