When D.C. United captain Dwayne De Rosario went down with an injury in September, United’s players heard the doubters in full throat.
They would fall flat without their captain. They wouldn’t be able to reinvent themselves.
Well, United made it to the Eastern Conference Finals having not lost since the 2011 MLS MVP was sidelined.
Sunday afternoon in Houston, however, D.C.’s remarkable ability to persevere through difficult situations hit a bright orange wall. United coach Ben Olsen was forced to use all three of his substitutions to replace injured players, and in the end saw his side take their first loss in months, a 3-1 defeat at BBVA Compass Stadium.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” Olsen said. “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.”
After playing Thursday night, the three-day turnaround proved too difficult for D.C. to overcome as key players Chris Pontius, Marcelo Saragosa and Brandon McDonald all came off for injuries.
Pontius, United’s leading scorer, sat on the bench – visibly upset and uncomfortably running his hands through his hair – after having come off in the 12th minute when his groin injury acted up.
“We were questioning whether I should play today,” Pontius said. “I woke up, felt good today, went out in the warmups, took shots and felt good, so we went along with it.”
Pontius was a step slow in the second leg against New York as well, but made it through that match.
“You wait for these games all year,” Pontius said. “You want to be in these games, so emotionally, it’s not fun to come out of a game like that. But at that point, I’m not helping my team anymore.”
Thirty-two minutes after Pontius came off, United lost another midfielder. Marcelo Saragosa’s hamstring bothered him to the point of being removed and rookie Rafael Augusto subbed on for his first MLS appearance.
Then United’s ironman, center back Brandon McDonald, came off in the 56th minute. McDonald had played 3,019 minutes this season before his calf gave way.
“It happened in the first half,” McDonald said. “I landed and it popped. I was able to push through it.
“Then it happened again. I was like, ‘I don’t want to just rip it off the bone,’ so hopefully I can get back for the second leg.”
United already were playing without suspended right back Andy Najar and goalkeeper Bill Hamid meaning at one point in the second half, a majority of D.C.’s field players were reserves.
In addition to the starters who came off, midfielder Branko Boskovic was forced to play 90 minutes for only the second time this season. Left back Chris Korb also played 90 after missing the second leg of the series against New York with a hamstring injury.
A tired team that so many times overcame long odds to succeed now will face its stiffest challenge of the year with plenty of question marks surrounding their injured players looming for the week ahead.
“It’ll be an interesting game going back to D.C.,” Olsen said. “We get to rest, they get to rest. You’re talking about two different teams when they’re healthy.”