When D.C. United lines up across from the Houston Dynamo on Sunday afternoon, the Black-and-Red may as well be looking in the mirror. The two Eastern Conference finalists have ridden opportunistic finishing and a well-organized defense to the brink of an MLS Cup berth. Hot goaltending hasn’t hurt either, as first Bill Hamid and then Joe Willis kept New York’s attack – which led the Eastern Conference with 57 regular season goals - to a lone tally in the conference semifinals.
Apparently, the aforementioned formula works in the postseason. It just doesn’t seem to impress everyone. Moments after beating New York on Thursday night, D.C.’s players were reminded of where they stand in the national conscience.
“[NBC Sports Analyst, Kyle] Martino gets on and it’s ‘D.C. United gets lucky’,” defender Brandon McDonald said Saturday, recalling the scene in United’s triumphant locker room at Red Bull Arena. “It’s like, can we ever get any credit for staying the course for ninety minutes and getting a victory?”
Credit given or not, Ben Olsen’s charges have advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 2006. Despite the momentum of a nine-match unbeaten streak, D.C. will be noticeably shorthanded when they open the two-leg series at BBVA Compass Stadium. Regular starters Hamid and Andy Najar are suspended and, according to Olsen, defender Chris Korb - who missed Thursday night’s second leg in New York with an injury - is still under evaluation.
In light of those absences, D.C.’s improved depth – which Olsen and General Manager Dave Kasper stated as the top priority this past offseason – has come to the fore. Outside backs Robbie Russell and Lewis Neal proved capable replacements against New York, with Russell providing the game-winning assist in the series’ second leg.
For all the defenders exploits however, no reserve was better than Joe Willis. His penalty-kick stop against Kenny Cooper Thursday night altered the course of D.C.’s season. Pressed into action again for the first leg against Houston, Willis has stockpiled confidence thanks in large part to his time as United’s starting goalkeeper earlier this season.
“It definitely helped me,” Willis said, referencing his nine-match stretch as the starter from mid-March to late-April. “I have a lot more confidence right now than I did earlier in the season. Getting those games under my belt and knowing that I can play at this level and play with these guys, it definitely gave me a lot of confidence going into these games.”
While Sunday’s contest is likely to be tense, it is but one half of play in what amounts to a 180-minute match. As such, Olsen – who is loath to hyperbole – put an interesting spin on his approach to the first leg.
“We’re banged up, they’re banged up, this game is about survival,” noted D.C.’s second-year head coach. “Then we get a week to regroup and get everybody back. I think [next] Saturday’s game will be a much more free-flowing, entertaining game. This one is about survival.”
Kickoff for Sunday’s match is scheduled for 4 p.m. eastern time at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium. The game can be seen on the NBC Sports Network.
» ANALYSIS: Volkswagen Keys to the Match
REFEREE: Ricardo Salazar.
SAR (bench): Craig Lowry; JAR (opposite): Peter Manikowski;
4th: Geoff Gamble
- HOUSTON DYNAMO -- QUESTIONABLE: MF Rico Clark (L adductor strain); FW Calen Carr (L hamstring strain); PROBABLE: DF Jermaine Taylor (L knee sprain)
- D.C. UNITED -- OUT: FW Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation); PROBABLE: DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); FW Long Tan (L ankle sprain); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain)
- DC: Andy Najar (through Nov. 18); Bill Hamid (through Nov. 11)
- HOU: none
WARNINGS (suspended next yellow card):
- HOU: Corey Ashe, Calen Carr, Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia, Tally Hall, Kofi Sarkodie
- DC: Andy Najar, Lionard Pajoy
HOU 9 wins, 27 goals … DC 4 wins, 15 goals … Ties 2
HOU 2 wins, 7 GF … DC 1 win, 3 GF … 0 ties
AT BBVA COMPASS STADIUM:
5/12: HOU 1, DC 0 (Davis 67)
7/15: HOU 4, DC 0 (Davis 19; Bruin 37; Garcia 62; Ching 89)
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS: First meeting