So it was a test too far for the stretched DC team, who can nonetheless regard next season knowing they are back in what they will see as their rightful place as post-season contenders.
For the Dynamo, yet another well managed game and a sterling performance by the central defenders Boswell and Taylor, who refused to get drawn out by all of DC's lateral movement and were solid throughout. The only sour note for them was the departure of Clark, who has apparently aggravated his groin injury again and looked in a lot of discomfort as he came off. They have two weeks to get him fit for wherever they're destined to play in the West in MLS Cup final.
We'll find out exactly where they're headed later - I hope you'll join me for Seattle v LA later on - for now, thanks for your tweets and emails and goodbye.
FINAL SCORE: DC UNITED 1 HOUSTON DYNAMO 1
...Hamid comes forward for the free kick, and leaves an empty net. Houston recover and for a second there's a chance for the long shot into the unguarded nt, but the referee has mercy and blows for the final whistle.
Final thoughts in a minute...
90 mins +4
Boskovic chips a ball over the top and Salihi attempts an overhead kick, but Houston get it clear. Now DC have a free kick wide left. Last chance...
90 mins +3
Korb hammers the ball forward but De Rosario loses out in the air and Houston come forward. Camargo elects to try and reach Barnes on the edge of the box when he might have been better heading for the corner, and DC get the ball again.
90 mins +2
Neal's cross is headed clear, then Santos makes a mess of bringing the ball down and Houston have a goal kick. They lose possession but there's barely any time left for DC now.
Moffat heads for the corner but concedes the throw and DC can build from the back again. Santos gets a head to the long ball forward, but the ball is too close to the keeper, who claims and sends it back up to the other end.
Then Hall is off his line well again to grab the ball with De Rosario hovering. Then he gets down sharply in the next sequence to deny a not particularly strong left foot shot by DeRo on the edge of the box.
We'll have four minutes of added time.
Sarkodie takes the ball into the corner to eat up some seconds but DC clear and break forward. Neal sends in a deep cross with men up in the box, but Hall claims it in the air and is fouled anyway. More seconds will be eaten up by the Dynamo.
The crowd wake up as DC try to lift themselves to get two goals in just over five minutes. De Rosario flicks on a ball from near the penalty spot but there's nobody at the far post.
Now a ball finds its way to Lewis Neal in space on the right side of the box, but he has to check his run to hit it on target and his shot has no power - straight at Hall.
GOAL! DC 1 HOUSTON 1 (BOSKOVIC!)
So yet again my typing tempts fate and Boskovic slaloms through the defense to slide the ball past Hall at the near post. Game on?
Davis off for Barnes.
Hamid is caught off his line as Weaver picks up a loose ball and tries an ambitious shot from distance that flies just over.
Barnes will be coming on for Davis as Houston try to see this out in an increasingly muted RFK Stadium. Their game management has been spot on so far in this second half, and indeed throughout these playoffs.
Davis steps forward on the edge of the box and his shot is charged down for a corner, which he strolls slowly across to take.
A tweet comes in - possibly from a non-Seattle resident...
It's DC 0 Houston 1 and both DC and Seattle need three goals to go to extra time. DC have ten minutes to get theirs...
Bruin ambles slowly off as Weaver comes into run around up front and relieve some pressure for Houston, not that there's much coming from a dispirited DC for now.
Now Kandji has another chance to finish it, as he ends up as the man over behind the defense on the left side of the box, but Hamid gets out quickly to smother his attempted shot. Kandji had time to think and place a shot, which is not necessarily his greatest strength. Good save though.
Cool work by Taylor under pressure at the back - this Houston central pairing have been very strong this afternoon. Now Houston get forward but Davis can't reach Bruin with his little ball inside and DC get forward again. Bruin will be coming out for Weaver shortly.
Sarkodie gets down the right on an increasingly rare foray forward and sends in a low cross that Garcia stoops low to head straight at Hamid.
Nobody can get a touch on a DC corner and Houston get it clear, but give up the ball again to invite more DC pressure.
Justin Kavanagh is back and switching from "Liverpool in Istanbul" analogies to dreadful puns:
"I think by now Liverpool were level, weren't they?
It's high time for DC to Russell up some attack, throw the Kitchen sink at Houston, or be kicked to the Korb for another year…DeRo DeRo dear. Sorry, I'll give myself the red for that."
Thanks Justin - saves me the bother.
A stray header back into his own box by Bruin is met on the turn by Salihi, but his opportunistic shot is straight at Hall.
At the other end Kandji lopes forward and in space on the edge of the box elects for the early shot to kill the game, but slides it just past the post, when he had time to keep going forward.
De Rosario works some space on the left and floats in a cross that Santos climbs well to reach on the six yard line, but he gets too much on it, under some questionably legal pressure from Kandji, and another decent chance flies wide. DC getting closer to goal, but closer to 90 minutes too. DC 0 Houston 1 with 20 minutes to go.
Big chances for DC! A diagonal ball evades everyone and Salihi is one on one with the keeper but his first touch is poor and Hall claims it. Then a minute later he's through in space again on the right side of the box, but can only force a corner, that DC waste.
Clark limping heavily as he heads back to the locker room. He has two weeks to get fit to avoid missing his third MLS Cup final.
Davis throws himself into tackles to dispossess De Rosario, but the DC man is soon up and trying to direct operations again - but his ball over the top is just too heavy.
Clark burst forward to meet a little sideways ball from Bruin and he's tackled by De Rosario on the edge of the box, and is slow to get up. He limps back onside and signals he is OK, but Kinnear will bring Camargo on for him.
DC just being forced back now and Davis pivots well to slide a ball to Kandji cutting in from the left, but he's forced off the ball by Neal inside the box. Kandji gets some more space on the left and whips in a dangerous ball across the six yard box but nobody's on the end of it.
He'll have more space as this game goes on - De Rosario in for Dudar now and DC will be moving to a back three for the remainder of the game. Do or die time for DC.
Now Houston try to stroke the ball around a little in possession, as we approach the hour and De Rosario warms up on the sideline. He's supposedly coming in for Dudar. DC 0 Houston 1
Houston get a counter going and for a moment Davis and Bruin are two-on-one, but it's a poor sideways ball from Davis and Bruin can't get enough space to put Dudar in trouble and DC have a goal kick.
At the other end Korb floats a cross towards where Salihi has ghosted in at the back post, but his cross floats just over the bar onto the roof of the net.
Hall hoofs the ball clear and DC regain possession. Houston happy enough to sit on their three goal advantage. Santos again tries to get on his left foot on the edge of the box, but again Boswell is alert to the danger.
Salihi coming on for Pajoy - DC have one more substitution left. Will it be you-know-who?
Just as we mention his name, Neal curls in a teasing ball to the back post that Sarkodie scoops clear well.
Houston definitely sitting deeper in this half, and after a frenetic start, they're just beginning to calm the play down a little.
William Carlos Williams Catskill Bill writes, with what might be a poem:
"Will UK's Neal have an impact - two good moves so far? Maybe he can work a gap.
Looking good so far.
I want DC to win - no one gives them a chance.
Otherwise De R will have to come on and try a Baggio"
Neal has indeed been involved early. He did fail a late fitness test to start, so let's see how he bears up.
DC understandably pushing very hard early, but Boswell in particular very steady at the back so far. Russell's deep cross just kept in by Santos at the back post, but now Houston break and Bruin holds th ball up well on the left to slide the ball back for the arriving Davis on the edge of the box. His shot is weak, but that's the inevitable risk for DC as they throw men forward. DC 0 Houston 1
Boswell steps across to cut out a ball headed towards Pajoy. This firts fifteen minutes will be crucial.
And there's a big chance early on! Russell cuts into the box from the right as a cross deflects of Pajoy to give him a volley at point blank range, but he's leaning back and his first touch is over the bar.
DC get us underway, needing three goals to get to extra time. Neal on for Saragosa, which will move Boskovic under Pajoy.
Any hope for DC?
De Rosario still on the bench at the start, Houston having a huddle and we'll be off in a minute.
Justin Kavanagh emails:
"I think Mitt Romney has more chance of getting a recount than DC has of turning this around. But remember Istanbul and all that…"
I should say that Arlo White has just mentioned that very game, which means that Justin may be channelling Mr White.
A fatalist tweets
@kidweil If you're Ben Olsen, do you even risk DeRo at this point? I sure wouldn't— On The Fire (@OnTheFire97) November 18, 2012
He's for sure not match fit, and it's a very different scenario from throwing him on on the hour, with DC needing, say, only one goal.
Half time thoughts
That was a fascinating first half. DC came out and played as well as they might have hoped - adjusting to the Dynamo set up and turning it to their advantage as they pushed their wide men forward. But Taylor and Boswell were very solid at the heart of defense, and refused to get pulled out of position, as had happened in the lead up to DC's goal in Houston. In Houston's midfield, Davis and Clark gradually asserted themselves and with half time approaching Davis did perfectly to get to the byline and cut the ball back for Oscar Boniek Garcia to score (and ignite his own performance judging by his contribution in the moments afterwards).
The question is, will we see De Rosario immediately? It's a risk for Olsen, but yet again his hand may have been forced with his subs. His side need a quick goal.
HALF TIME: DC 0 HOUSTON 1
Half time thoughts in a minute...
45 mins +1
We're into the one minute that's scheduled for added on time, just after Santos reached another ball over the top to slide the ball past Hall into the net, but it was well after already being called offside. DC throw men forward for one final attack in the half but Russell's final cross from the right is poor and that will be that for the half.
DC just getting a little more ragged now. DeLeon fouls Clark as he tries to hurry a turnover, but only concedes a foul. DC also that bit more urgent in possession now. Saragosa crosses a high ball into the box, but Hall, who's looked very confident in these playoffs, jumps well to claim.
Houston attacking a little right now, Clark lofts a cross all the way across the box from the right - they sense that with DC deflated at the moment, these moments before half time might be the moment to kill the tie. Another DC free kick just inside the Houston half, another headed clearance by an orange shirt. Taylor and Boswell standing firm so far.
...Boskovic drives the free kick into the box and Kitchen can't keep his header on target. DC may not feel it's time to panic, but they could really do with a goal before half time. But it's Houston who get the next glimpse at goal, as Kandji sticks out a foot on the edge of the box to run the ball into the path of Boniek Garcia, free on the edge of the box, but he just gets his feet tangled at the crucial moment, and DC breathe again.
DC 0 Houston 1 (1-4 on aggregate)
...DC break from the free kick and Clark looks to have made a cyncial block to hold up play. The free kick is given, but no card.
Boniek Garcia, looking pretty animated in the wake of his goal, does well to retain the ball in midfield, then just fails to reach a ball in behind by Sarkodie.
DC have a free kick now, central some 45 yards out...
So did DeRo's recovery just get pushed forward to half time. DC need three goals to take this to extra time now. DC try to push back, but it's Houston who have a free kick wide right in the DC half...
GOAL! DC 0 HOUSTON 1 (BONIEK GARCIA!)
Great counter punch...
Just as I'm typing about Houston being static Moffat gets up in support of Bruin for the first time and the pair work the ball ut wide to Davis, who wriggles to the byline and cuts back to the edge of the six yard box for Boniek Garcia to crash home.
DC have done well to impose themselves on the game so far, but no joy as yet for all their pressing. Houston try to work a little possession of their own, but look a little static at the moment.
Santos has had a couple of looks at getting the ball on his favored left foot, but so far Boswell has done very well to close him down and push him onto his right foot in dangerous positions.
Pajoy gets free again on a ball over the top wide left, sends in a cross that DeLeon controls and touches to the arriving Russell on the right. His deft cross is flicked on by Santos and Hall has to get up to claim the ball as it may have looped under the bar. More good movement from DC, but it's still DC 0 Houston 0 and DC still need two goals.
Santos takes a couple of touches on the edge of the box and shapes to shoot, but the door closes on him. Korb and Russell pressing up very high on the flanks for DC. With Bruin alone up front for Houston, DC able to commit their full backs and leave the Dynamo forward to their center backs.
Korb arrives on the overlap to send in a cross but Boskovic's header is weak and Houston will clear.
DC getting more extended periods of possession now, and now they force another turnover from Garcia, who had few outlets - Bruin not really showing for the ball at the moment.
Now Bruin does appear on the scene, to concede a foul as he goes up for a long ball in the DC half.
DC trying to pull the Dynamo's packed central midfield from side to side, forcing Clark to come out of the middle.
DC get the better of some scrappy midfield battling and DeLeon moves smartly to keep the move going rather than rushing an attack. He's looked very composed in these playoffs, even aside from his two goals.
Houston try another patient build up and Sarkodie finds some more space out right. The cross comes into a crowded box and Boskovic can get it clear. Not much sign of Bruin yet - he's in for a lonely afternoon as things stand.
So Ben Olsen said his side shouldn't panic if they hadn't scored after 20 minutes. Everything going according to plan then. They'e finding spaces and looking steady and composed, but no breakthrough yet. Houston trying to press them when possible to not invite too much pressure. DC 0 Houston 0.
Santos forced off the ball in the corner by two Houston defenders. He wants a corner. I want a Mercedes. Life is disappointing sometimes.
Houston attack and Garcia is in acres of space as they say, down the right side. At the second attempt he cuts the ball back to Davis on the edge of the box, but the chance for a counter slips away. A warning for Korb, who's been pushing forward from that side, but was nowhere to be seen there.
This one simmering nicely. Santos earns a free kick, central inside the Dynamo half. Boskovic over it, but not a lot of angle so he slides it wide for Russell, but his cross is poor. DC retain possession and Boskovic floats one wide in the box to where Santos has got behind Moffat, but the ball to him is just too high. Right idea though...
...Boswell has to get up to head clear as Dudar goes for the header from the corner. McDonald is fit by the way, but Olsen likes Dudar's potential at set pieces. If he'd got to that one it might have been interesting.
Pajoy is dispossessed on the edge of the box and Houston get forward. They're content to work it back to the keeper in order to keep possession and just ease that building DC pressure.
Pajoy picks up a long ball over the top and sends in a dangerous cross that Taylor clears at the expense of a corner. DC pressing now...
Ashe tries to get forward to meet a lob over the top of the defense from Clark, but the ball runs out of play for a goal kick.
Suddenly out of nowhere, Korb, who's been involved a fair amount early, tucks inside and catches a sweet half volley from 35 yards that's headed to the top corner till Hall scrambles across. Good effort, but it's still DC 0 Houston 0.
Crisp DC attack is worked forward by Saragosa to Pajoy, but he can't find a black shirt with his cut back - but that's another warning for the Dynamo as Pajoy gets in behind on that left side. In the end Kandji has to make a decent tackle on Russell to break up the attack in the box.
Nice diagonal ball from DeLeon slides in behind the Dynamo defense for Korb to loft a cross up to the back post, but the Dynamo get it clear. Good vision from DeLeon to see the overlap though. DC slowly adjusting to the visitor's shape and looking to the flanks.
Moffat of course scored that beauty against Sporting in the semi-final, so DC can't afford to give him too many chances to shoot from distance. Now they try to build their own attack, but Houston break it up - they've settled very quickly and looking nicely balanced.
Maicon Santos has no goals in his last 13 games by the way, according to Arlo White on NBC. He's scored seven this year, but not since May 26th...
Russell tries to press forward down the right but his touch is intercepted. Houston get the first free kick around the half way line, to the cheerful disgust of the DC fans. Houston keeping a surprisingly high press at the start here - and Moffat gets the first look at goal, with a low shot wide from just outside the box.
We're off! Houston Dynamo get us under way and pass it back as you might expect. DC press them early, as you also might expect.
You Can't Hold Us Back - We Are United
Nice tifo by the DC United fans holding up letters spelling the above message. You can't hold us back was Bill Hamid's endearingly mad rant after his side won their semi-final against New York, despite him being sent off.
OK, let's go...
OK last chance to remind yourself what products you need, and we'll be kicking off in a minute.
Booze, Vegas, insurance, bigscreen TVs, big box stores, energy drinks, cars, in case you were wondering...
Teams coming out
Accompanied by a Soviet Army choir singing the MLS anthem by the sounds of it...
Ben Olsen is insisting there's no panic of his team don't score in the first 20 minutes, and obviously with DeRo on the bench but not match fit, he may be happy enough to be in touch around the hour mark, and then hope he can make the changes he needs with the right amount of time left - before it becomes a matter of diminishing returns from his star player. Pontius, by the way, may be a doubt even if DC make the final...
Looks like the entire lower bowl at RFK is filled. DC have a big and enthusiastic crowd behind them.
Couple more team thoughts - Neal failed a late fitness test, so that will shuffle DC's formation to more of a 4-4-2, while with Clark back in for Houston (watch how he's recovered from injury today), Houston will possibly start with a defensive-minded version of their 4-3-3 - watch how Kandji does with that wide left.
DC United: Hamid; Russell, Jakovic, Dudar, Korb; Boskovic, Saragosa, Kitchen, DeLeon; Santos, Pajoy
Subs: Willis, McDonald, Woolard, Augusto, De Rosario, Neal, Salihi
Houston Dynamo: Hall; Sarkodie, Boswell, Taylor, Ashe; Garcia, Moffat, R. Clark, Davis (C); Bruin, Kandji
Subs: Deric, Ching, Weaver, Barnes, Creavalle, Hainault, Camargo
So the big news is not so much in the starting eleven, but on the bench where De Rosario may yet have a part to play after his supposedly season ending MCL injury. Pontius didn’t recover from injury in time, so there’s a lot of pressure on DeLeon to provide dynamism in his wide position, and for Santos to step up and replace Pontius. No Hainault for Houston - he starts on the bench today, as does McDonald for DC.
I think everyone’s hoping that today’s game doesn’t hinge on a controversial refereeing decision. Not least today’s referee, Baldomero Toledo.
So last week, Arlo White of NBC mentioned that at half time he’d spoken to Peter Walton, the head of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) about the controversial decision not to penalize, let alone send off Andre Hainault, for what TV cameras indicated was a clear foul and denial of a goalscoring opportunity. Walton suggested that even had a foul been awarded there was a Houston defender who would have got across in time to cover, so Hainault would/should have had a yellow. White duly reported this and it became part of the narrative of conjecture about the incident (which in fairness looked much clearer from the reverse angle to referee Salazar’s view).
PRO was founded this year by MLS and US soccer to develop referees in USA and Canada, and while Walton has largely been in evaluation mode in the first year, he’s become a more familiar presence at games as the year has gone on. I profiled him earlier this year and have bumped into him on his travels once or twice - he’s always been open and happy to discuss incidents in games that are taking place, though I suspect he’d be happier still for the focus to remain elsewhere, in line with his insistence that a good referee is one you struggle to remember after the game.
Anyway, Walton sees part of PRO’s remit as educational - explaining the rules behind decisions, though not qualifying or justifying subjective decisions. Sure enough, he revisited last week's big call and came up with a revised opinion posted on the PRO website.
It feels like every season the Dynamo drift into the playoffs, and every season the sides they play early on are guilty of looking ahead past them to the next round. And every year, those teams, various neutral bystanders, and even the Dynamo fans themselves, get a reminder that when it comes to building a side that peaks for the playoffs, Dominic Kinnear has few peers. It’s a record that goes beyond the simplistic “get into the playoffs and anything can happen” mantra, to be much more about building a solid system where players are clear about their roles and the contingencies of game management. And of course an experienced core of players who’ve been in these situations plenty of times before.
Yet when the team were at their strongest in regular season play, it was with a system change - in late summer, early fall, as they integrated new personnel and experimented with an initially successful 4-3-3. It was a shift that brought the best out of new signing Oscar Boniek Garcia, the creativity of Brad Davis at the heart of their midfield movement, the returning Ricardo Clark, and even the challenge of how you accommodate the dangerous but sometimes frustrating Mac Kandji. When they began to falter and Chicago began to surge during fall, Kinnear quietly reintroduced the 4-4-2 as his side eased into the playoffs, but with the new formation added to the armory as a workable alternative. Chicago stumbled at the wrong time and were already out of form when Houston beat them in the opening round, then in the semi-finals Houston rode a mix of pragmatic game management and ruthlessness (and yes, a little luck) to see off Sporting Kansas City for the second successive year, as once again Kinnear brought his team to the boil at just the right moment.
So are they headed for a second successive MLS Cup appearance? On balance, given Houston’s road form, DC’s home form and the host team’s preparations for a do or die stand - I’d say you can see this Houston side scoring today, but I’m not sure I can see DC scoring three, so on balance you’d have to favour the Texans to lose or tie the game but win the series. Thankfully, for all DC fans, what do I know?
@kidweilwe are vastly superior at rfk, supporter energy is at an all-time high, and we will crush these fools (i hope)— Barf America (@dayan) November 18, 2012
So can they do it? On recent form, even with the hole they’re in, you’d be brave to say they can’t. Ben Olsen seems to have embraced, even relished, the challenge of maximising his squad and nursing them through difficult games with astute substitutions capable of filling in gaps, or even popping up with crucial goals. Chris Pontius has grown more and more in to the role of an onfield leader in the wake of De Rosario’s injury, and the team that is, remember, the highest seed left in the competition, have shown a lot of spirited resilience in getting to the playoffs, then forcing their way through an epic series with New York.
The effects of that series are with us today. After snatching the win at the death late on Thursday night, DC had very little recovery time before heading to Houston on Sunday afternoon, and it showed. Pontius, the designated talisman in the absence of DeRo, limped out of the action early in the first half, and before the afternoon was up, Olsen’s hand had been forced on all three substitutions. With Houston working the slow Russell in the right back position and pressing hard in the second half, DC, having taken the lead through DeLeon, conceded three goals, to leave them with a big ask today.
Pontius was still being monitored on Saturday. We’ll let you know if he’s succeeded in getting fit shortly. Intriguingly De Rosario has been back in full training and could make an appearance, but after what happened in the first leg, Olsen will be reluctant to start players who can’t last the 90, let alone a likely best case scenario of 120 minutes - and then end up having nothing in reserve to change the dynamic of a tight game late. Brandon McDonald, another doubt at the back, captured Olsen’s predicament when speaking to MLSsoccer.com a couple of days ago:
“For me, it’s about the team. I don’t want to be selfish,” he said. “Right now, the way I feel, I could go out there and play. But I don’t want it to be another Houston thing where I’m going out there and playing 50 minutes and then having to waste a sub.”
Who can Olsen bring in? Salihi or Santos in forward positions perhaps. Or there’s the intriguing prospect of Raphael Augusto getting a start in midfield - the player was thrown into his MLS debut (and first MLS refereeing controversy) in the first game. There’s also Neal, who’s slotted in as a serviceable utility player of late.
Welcome to part two of the Great Escape, or part two of the Postponed Inevitable (Eastern Edition)...
DC United, 3-1 down to Houston Dynamo, after the first leg ran away from them in a blur of injuries and controversial decisions, now bring the Dynamo home needing to win by two clear goals to take this game to extra time. Can they do what Sporting Kansas City failed to do in the semi-finals and come back from a two goal deficit at home? Or will Houston get the result they need in their fifth conference final in seven seasons, to take Dominic Kinnear’s men to MLS Cup for the second consecutive year (in what at the moment looks like a rematch with the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center)?
We’ll find out shortly, but for now catch up on what happened in the first leg below, have a look at how our regular fan previewers see this game and the later Western final second leg between LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, and get your tweets and emails coming in to @KidWeil or firstname.lastname@example.org - I’ll be back shortly with more build up and team news.