D.C. United are accustomed to long odds this postseason, and that will certainly remain the case after Houston used three second-half goals to take the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship 3-1 in front of a record crowd at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
In a game littered with injuries and perhaps defined by a controversial no call, the Dynamo used goals from Andre Hainault, Will Bruin and Kofi Sarkodie to cancel out Nick DeLeon’s opener in front of 22,101 orange-clad fans.
Houston started out on the front foot, Luiz Camargo blazing over from a tight angle and Brad Davis lining up over a series of attacking free kicks, but soon injuries became the primary theme of the match.
United’s Chris Pontius was the first to exit, straining his left groin in the ninth minute while taking a free kick before being subbed out for Lewis Neal in the 12th minute.
Neal nearly opened the scoring five minutes later, but Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall was there to swat his shot at the back post away after DeLeon’s cross made it all the way across the box. Hainault nearly grabbed the lead for Houston in the 23rd minute, but his header from Boniek Garcia’s quickly taken free kick flashed wide of Joe Willis’ goal.
Just minutes later, Adam Moffat was the second casualty of the match, finally succumbing to a chest injury in the 25th minute after a collision with Robbie Russell kept him down earlier in the match. Midseason signing Giles Barnes entered for the Scotsman to shore up the Dynamo midfield.
United’s Marcelo Saragosa was the also removed in the 40th minute with a left hamstring strain. Raphael Augusto, 21, came on for the veteran, making his first-ever MLS appearance.
But it wasn’t Houston’s players in the center of the park who were to blame for the opening goal in the 27th minute. That fell to Garcia and Sarkodie, who lost the ball to DeLeon on the left flank, splitting the Houston defense open. DeLeon slipped the ball in behind Bobby Boswell to a streaking Lionard Pajoy, who drove in from the left flank and smacked Hall’s post with a terrific effort.
Fortunately for D.C., DeLeon was trailing the play and the rebound fell directly to the rookie, whose low effort caromed off Hainault and into the back of the net for his second goal in two games, giving United a 1-0 lead.
That, perhaps, should have been Hainault’s last positive contribution to the match, as he appeared to haul down Augusto on the edge of penalty area just before the halftime whistle. Referee Ricardo Salazar waived play on, however, ruling it was not a denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity. United goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad was ejected at halftime after an animated discussion with Salazar.
United’s complaints became especially relevant just six minutes into the second half when Houston tied the game. After Barnes was fouled on the left flank, Davis took the spot kick quickly, slipping Garcia in behind a sleeping United defense. The Honduran drove a low ball across the six-yard box, which was dummied by Kandji before Hainault buried it at the back post.
Five minutes later, United were forced to use their final substitution, as Brandon McDonald exited with a left calf strain for Emiliano Dudar. That’s when things got really interesting.
The drama started in the 66th minute when it appeared D.C. would take the lead, only for Bobby Boswell to pop up on the goal line to head away Pajoy’s goal-bound effort. Just a minute later, Bruin made the Black-and-Red pay.
Barnes drove past Dejan Jakovic on the endline and tried to slip a cross under Willis, but the D.C. netminder dove to push the effort away. It only got as far as Bruin, however, and he bundled it in off the post for a 2-1 lead.
With D.C. looking gassed, Houston put the game, and perhaps the series, away in the 80th minute. After United failed to clear a Davis corner kick, Sarkodie and Camargo played a nifty one-two, opening up the right back to find the far corner with a low, driven shot, a goal that sent the sellout crowd into hysterics.
Houston will take that two-goal lead to RFK Stadium for the series’ second leg next weekend. That game will be Sunday at 4 pm ET on NBC Sports Network. PURCHASE TICKETS
Lineups and boxscore (MLSsoccer.com)
Opta Chalkboard (MLSsoccer.com)