As the whistle goes, Ben Olsen and assistant coach Chad Ashton stride furiously straight out to the officials and are pointing and gesticulating angrily as Salazar and co stand impassively in front of them.
You can see why they're angry. The big call not to give a foul, let alone a yellow, let alone a red for Hainault's dubious tackle just before half time, was compounded by the same player arriving at the back post to score the equalizer for the hosts, before Bruin added to his burgeoning playoff reputation and Sarkodie scored the cushioning goal. We've not heard the last of that.
Both sides were stretched by injuries, but it was DC who got hit hardest as their tired players finally got stretched to breaking point. A 3-1 deficit is not impossible for DC, a good home side to retrieve against Houston, an indifferent away side - but the big question will be what players Olsen has fit to field this time next week. You suspect the fate of Pontius will be key.
For Houston, they beat DC yet again, and end their 2012 home stand undefeated - their new home has given them every possible advantage in these playoffs - can they finish the job on the road? Find out next week - and join me tonight for the first leg of LA Galaxy vs Seattle Sounders. For now, good afternoon.
FINAL SCORE: HOUSTON 3 DC UNITED 1
Final thoughts in a moment...
90 mins +3
Are we headed to the West Coast for a final? Fans of Seattle and LA will be watching developments here with interest.
Houston are half way there - the whistle goes...
90 mins +2
Second of three added on minutes. Pajoy, by the way, is a player sitting on a yellow, and can ill afford to attract attention for back chat, if he's to help his team next week. DeLeon gets forward down the left and tries to feed Pajoy but the ball rolls for a goal kick, and not the corner the strier wanted.
90 mins +1
Pajoy battles his way into the box down the right, but he's adjudged to have fouled a Houston defender in the build up. Clearly frustrated, he exchanges words with Corey Ashe as we track back up the field.
Instantly Ching is in action to foulKitchen centrally just outside the box, and DC have a chance for Boskovic to get one up and down. Neal and Pajoy over it too. Pajoy steps up short and curls one high over the top corner he's aiming for. He looks after the ball in disgust, as well he might.
Creavalle on for Davis, Ching in for Bruin, as Houston play the last of their cards to see out the game. Big roar for the crowd favorites going off and on the field. Ching grabs the captain's armband as Davis jogs off. Two minutes left.
Houston happy to clear the ball anywhere and concede the ball back to DC in the visitor's half. Looks like they're happy to defend this lead.
DC bench have to watch helplessly, with all their subs committed and their remaining players struggling out there. They badly need pOntius to give them any chance next week you suspect.
Not that they're giving up the ghost here - and a second goal from them could still change the mood of this game. Pajoy forces a corner as he runs into the Dynamo box.
Kinnear screaming at his men, as almost immediately DC have half a chance with a dangerous through ball for DeLeon to chase - but he can't get to the ball - no thanks to Kandji who conceded possession in the build up. Kinnear appears to have noticed that...
GOAL! HOUSTON 3 DC 1 (SARKODIE!)
So will we see Kinnear go for it with his subs? He still has two, but no sign of them entering the game just yet. Now Kandji just ghosts round the outside of Jakovic down the flanks and making a beeline for goal, but at the last second the ball is forced out for a corner. Davis takes his time over this one, sends it in and it causes havoc in the box as Kandji competes for it, but it's just cleared past the post again. Another corner...
It evades everyone and Sarkodie plays a beautiful disguised one two with Camargo, and in space at the back of the box, slams a shot across Willis to surely complete the victory!
Decent chance for Houston as Sarkodie, getting forward at right back, picks up a ball over the top into the box, scoops the ball back over his head and gets a shot on target. Willis is able to parry it at close range though, but that was a nice bit of blindside movement from the Dynamo defender.
At the other end Korb is down after stretching for a long ball over the top, that he just fails to control. He's up, but looking sluggish right now.
Kandji tries a little stepover and gets past one man, but not a second, out wide. Now he's booked for time-wasting after not taking the resulting throw in time.
Another raking pass from Kitchen, but this one goes all the way through for Hall and now Houston are making their way up the field. Bruin is the target, but Dudar sees the danger and steps up quickly to intercept. DC refusing to panic.
Just as against Sporting, Kinnear is warming up his subs for the climax of the game, in the hope of building an unassailable margin in the first leg.
DC, to their credit, are refusing to buckle and are the team attacking. Excellent crossfield ball from Kitchen almost opens up space for Korb to get a shot in from wide, but Garcia is back to defend well.
DC almost strike straight back as Kitchen has a free header from a free kick but can't force it home and Houston get the crucial touch to concede a corner. It's fired deep and low by Boskovic and Bruin has to be alert to poke clear, with Pajoy lurking at the far post. Houston 2 DC United 1 with 20 minutes to go.
GOAL! HOUSTON 2 DC 1 (BRUIN!)
Looks like they heeded the warning...
Again the long ball don the left pulls the DC full back out of position as Barnes persists, just as Russell did a minute ago, to get round the outside on the byline and drive a fierce low ball to the near post, to where Willis fails to claim and Bruin bundles the ball over the line!
BOSWELL CLEARS OFF LINE!
Houston battling for the ball in midfield, but DC holding it up well and now they have a rare chance to build an attack of their own. They move the ball around neatly and Russell does brilliantly to get round the outside and cut back a low ball for Pajoy to direct goal wards, only for Boswell to get back brilliantly to head off the line. Warning for Houston.
Sharp interception by Kitchen, as some Garcia trickery on the right flank ends in a cutback intended for the onrushing Davis on the edge of the box, but Kitchen is alert enough to make the interception and come cler with the ball.
Ashe picks up the ball and tries to step clear to knock a ball over the top of the defense again, but nobody on his team is on the same page and DC recover.
Ashe sends another ball over the top down the left as Houston continue to direct pressure that way. DC do well to get it clear, but Pajoy is not able to hold the ball up, and Houston get possession back. DC need Pajoy to get a little more success in those situations as the day goes on.
So an hour gone and it's still Houston 1 DC 1, but the atmosphere is steadily ratcheting up here, as Houston try to get forward. Kandji races forward to find some space from a ball over the top into the corner that he knocks into the box first time. It's more of a touch inside than a cross though, and Dudar is always favorite to clear.
Corner for Houston taken short and then some trickery by Davis forces space for the cross and Bruin's header just skews off Dudar for another one. The hosts certainly mixing it up from set pieces so far - and in fairness, that's what brought them their equalizer.
Game wakes up as Kandji forces his way through the center of midfield and the ball breaks for Barnes, who looks up and strikes a shot from just outside the box, but it flies over the bar. Now it looks like McDonald is being forced out for DC, and Dudar is coming in for DC's final forced substitution.
It means the tired Boskovic will have to go the full 90 minutes. Houston need to take advantage this half, to tilt the tie their way.
DC have a chance to strike straight back with a central free kick some 30 yards out. Boskovic and Augusto over it. Boskovic strikes it straight at the wall though and Davis gets it clear twice, before a Pajoy offside relieves the temporary pressure.
GOAL! HOUSTON 1 DC 1 (HAINAULT!)
Quick free kicks...
Garcia had been quiet up to that moment - no sign of him unlocking the DC defense consistently. Now there's a decent opportunity for Houston as McDonald flattens Barnes on the left corner of the box and once again it's taken short to free Garcia down the left and his square ball is forced home at point blank range by Hainault (who arguably shouldn't be on the field)! That should liven us up.
Houston trying to build up steadily, but they're not quite clicking at the moment and DC look comfortable defending early. Garcia tries to cut inside and send a chip through the defense. It's cleared but then he gest another chance to find Bruin on the diagonal run to the corner of the box. He manages to get his first time shot on target, but there's no power and Willis gets down to save. Houston 0 DC 1.
Houston are 12-0-6 in competitive games at this stadium - this is the most significant game of the lot though.
They press early and Bruin gets a swing at a low cross in the box, but his shot is blocked. Decent pressing in the build up, but they'll need to keep it up all half and force the issue, to trouble this DC set up.
We're off - DC kick off.
Peter Walton, head of PRO, claiming that if the Hainault incident was a foul, it would have been a yellow card, as Camargo could have come back to prevent the goalscoring opportunity. All moot right now of course, but that could have been a killer blow for Houston. About to get underway.
Before San Jose were eliminated from the playoffs, there was a little unease at the logistical possibility of the number one seeds hosting MLS Cup - Buck Shaw was too small and college sports were likely to rule out some of the most logical alternatives. But if DC could maintain their advantage over two legs, we'll be at RFK Stadium on 1st December, which, as an ageing stadium, is not without its challenges either.
Half time thoughts
Steve Busfield wrote in our 5 things story a couple of days ago about his puzzlement at the league scheduling, and we're certainly seeing two very battered looking teams out there, who've played a lot of games in very short order - with Pontius, Moffat and Saragosa all forced off the field early and other clearly carrying injuries as the half unfolded.
DC should be the more tired side, but they've shown tremendous battling qualities and resilience, with DeLeon picking up where he left off - not just in scoring goals, but being a real handful in holding up play and stretching Houston down the outside.
Houston have very deliberately tried to keep the DC defense moving rather than let them set up to defend set pieces - they've taken their free kicks almost exclusively as quick ones, rather than waiting for Davis to curl crosses in - he in turn has been necessarily subdued as the Dynamo try to negotiate a compromised midfield setup.
DC will be the happiest - not just for the goal, but for the way they're refusing to be physically overwhelmed by their hosts. Let's see how they bear up in the second half though...
HALF TIME: HOUSTON 0 DC 1
DC assistant coach Pat Onstad (never the most retiring member of their bench) is shown a red card for complaining about the lack of a red card in that last incident. Can't blame him for being angry.
Half time thoughts in a minute...
45 mins +3 BIG CALL!
Last chance for Houston, with another quick free kick, but their desire to catch DC flatfooted by moving the ball quickly hasn't yet paid off.
Then Hainault looks to drag Augusto to the ground on the edge of the box - replays make it look like a clear foul and prevention of a goalscoring opportunity, but nothing is given. Big big call by ref Salazar.
45 mins +2
Houston searching for space as they try to build patiently, but Barnes hits a loose ball that Ashe can't control. and the move breaks down.
45 mins +1
Hainault lofts a long ball forward and Barnes picks up the knockdown. Kitchen is cool under pressure though and he forces the ball clear. Three minutes to be added on. DC looking pretty organized in defense for the most part.
DC's turn to attack a free kick as Boskovic curls one in low from outside the left corner of the box, but Kandji bundles clear - only at the expense of a deep throw though. There's a sequence of these as Houston are pinned back and frustrated just before half time.
DC's bench looking a little pensive as they weigh up a one goal lead against the loss of the key personnel they've risked playing today. Now their team haa a free kick to defend from the corner of the box, but Davis lofts it way too high and Willis has no problem grabbing it.
DeLeon gets a talking to for a rough challenge by the halfway line but Houston get forward under the advantage and Willis has to make a decision again to dive for a cutback cross from Bruin. Still Houston 0 DC 1, but now we have another substitution, as Augosto, the loanee from Fluminese, comes on for the injured Saragosa for DC.
CHANCE FOR HOUSTON! Bruin gets to run at Russell and turns him inside and out again before his shot is blocked, but then Kandji picks up the loose ball and cuts inside on the left to strike a low shot, that Willis just gets his fingers to to push past the far post. great save. Houston pressing now.
Houston pushing men forward now - they need to seize the initiative in this game, but Bruin is offside as he gets turned on the edge of the box, and now DC go close again. Kitchen drives a cross to the back post, where Boskovic arrives with a first time instep volley that powers into the side netting.
Again Houston press down the left to ask questions of Russell, and Kandji makes space for a shot on the outside of the full back, but from a difficult angle and foot position, he hits it over.
it was Jakovic who had the handball claim against him by the way.
Houston trying to press forward and working the ball down the flanks with some great skill from Barnes, who hits a low cross that prompts howls from the Dynamo crowd, as they beg for a handball. Nothing doing though.
Great follow in be DeLeon to finish that chance. It's very quiet in Houston right now - who have the added problem of Davis having to compensate for Barnes and Camargo's lack of natural defensive instincts in midfield, following the substitution. DC 1-0 up after half an hour.
GOAL! HOUSTON 0 DC UNITED 1 (DELEON!)
With Houston's back line out of position Pajoy springs behind them and shoots past Hall from a narrow angle. The ball skews back off the far post, and DeLeon, following in, strikes the ball towards the goal, and it deflects off the last man, just inside the post!
Barnes thrown straight into defensive duties as DC have a throw deep in Houston territory. It's hoofed clear and held up well by Bruin. Players drift forward and eventually the cross comes in to the six yard box, but Willis is confidently off his line to claim. He's not had much to do, but he's looked solid early.
Moffat, who was still suffering from earlier, will have to come out for Giles Barnes. Early subs for both sides - how will Houston rejig their defensive midfield duties?
Atmosphere a little subdued in the stadium right now. Russell gets forward in an advanced position down the right, to left a cross in towards Pajoy, but it's scooped up and Houston are able to get men underneath and clear it.
Houston get forward with some intent and Ashe's run is checked illegally by Neal on the right edge of the box. Free kick taken very quickly again, and Hainault powers a free header just past the post.
The departure of Pontius actually stopped either team from getting any momentum going early. Everyone resdiscovering the game a little after the departure of a key man.
That said, DC will be very happy with how they're competing all over the field and they'll be equally happy with the score: Houston 0 DC United 0
Houston get possession back after a period where DC were beginning to press and start to stroke the ball around the back a little looking for an opening.
De Leon does well to keep possession in midfield and pushes the ball out to Kitchen, who tries to switch the attack with a diagonal ball. Good idea, but it doesn't come off on this occasion.
Now there's a decent chance for DC as De Leon scampers down the left and whips a ball across goal that's met by Neal racing into the far side of the box, but his shot is straight at Hall, who parries clear.
Pontius is sitting down on the bench, distraught. Neal on for him. Still Houston 0 DC 0, but a big goal threat just left the scene for the visitors. How will DC cope in his absence? Hopefully he'll be back for the return leg.
We're being reminded that 5 Houston players are on yellow cards and would miss the second leg with a booking. Both sides finding their resources stretched.
Fairly even so far today. Houston shading it early, but DC pushing their way into the game gradually.
...Pontius strikes it low and it deflects off Bruin for a corner, but worryingly for DC, Pontius seems to have hurt his right foot, that was already a worry, and now he'll have to come out early.
Meanwhile Moffat is own being treated too.
Corner floats over and somehow evades everyone before Moffat swings at it on the edge of the box and skies his shot - no spectaculars for him this time round.
DC get forward for once, and Boskovic slides the ball out right. Houston try to clear their lines, but only succeed in giving DC a free kick 30 yards out and central...
Early pressure from Houston, but DC force a turnover in midfield and De Leon races clear in the right hand side of the box, but elects to cut back for Pajoy, who's boxed out
At the other end David gets another free kick, on the other side of the field, but his inswinger is headed clear. Houston keep pressing though and now they have their first corner...
Salazar plays advantage after a couple of clumsy DC challenges fly in, but then pulls play back for a free kick to Houston some 35-40 yards out, central. Davis over it, but he takes it short and Houston pick up another free kick out wide. Better angle for Davis and he curls one in towards Bruin, but Willis makes a clean take in the DC goal.
First free kick as Korb goes in hard on Kandji. No Davis curler though - taken quickly. Fast start generally as the ball pings around, with tackles flying in. Houston trying to get moving early and a ball over the top finds Camargo at a narrow angle to goal, but his half volley goes over.
Last huddles to gossip about the other team ("What are they thinking of with those shorts?") and we'll be under way. Referee Salazar gets us under way. Houston kick off.
Anthems being sung
Moment of silence for Veteran's Day first.
We'll be under way in a few minutes...
All a twitter
@kidweil Excited for both conference finals, but not sure any MLS tie will soon top the Eastern Conf. semis just ended.— @mezz98 (@mezz98) November 11, 2012
Both series were pretty epic in their own way - though the twists and drama of the DC vs New York series will take some beating.
Teams are walking out now by the way.
Houston will be playing a 4-4-2 with Moffat sitting deep most of the time and Camargo pushed up. Camargo is in in lieu of Ricardo Clark by the way. Will Bruin has been in formidable form up front, so there'll be a lot of demands on De Leon on DC's right, to remember his defensive duties and help out Russell, so that Davis doesn't get a chance to feed the front men, or Kandji get too much space to get round the back.
If you like bullet points you’ll love our comments section...
You can see our regular 5 Things we learned column here (semi-final second leg edition), with some rather great below the line contributions from our commenters. If for some reason you have a lot to say on these games, that can’t wait till tomorrow, that’s not a bad place to put it. We’ll of course have our own fresh “5 things” for your pleasure in the morning, and hopefully there’ll be plenty to discuss. I also hope Busfield keeps up his list mania - get the man anywhere near a playoff bracket and he’s like a man possessed...
Alright, let's get down to business...
Houston Dynamo: Hall; Sarkodie, Boswell, Hainault, Ashe; Garcia, Moffat, Camargo, Davis (C); Bruin, Kandji
DC United: Willis; Russell, Jakovic, McDonald, Korb; DeLeon, Kitchen, Saragosa, Boskovic, Pontius (c); Pajoy
So Kandji and Camargo get starts - interesting to see how that midfield and attack shapes up early. Perhaps Kinnear fancies Kandji's chances of running at Russell at speed, down the left side. Korb is back in for Neal in the other DC full back position, so Pontius may have more support on that flank today.
And of course, with Hamid suspended, Willis will start in goal for DC today. Thursday night was not the first time Willis had had to step into Hamid’s shoes during a game this season - funnily enough Hamid was sent off in July against today’s opponents, for bringing down Mac Kandji, and Willis was thrown into the game in that one too.
An Englishman in Houston
Seems like only yesterday Tom Dart was wandering around this ground ooh-ing and ah-ing at the fresh orange paint...
Speaking of Tom, he's there again right now, issuing demands.
@kidweil Some coffee would be great. And possibly an umbrella— Tom Dart (@Tom_Dart) November 11, 2012
DC United may be the most decorated team in MLS history, but they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007, and once De Rosario went down with a season-ending injury, many people were looking below the playoff cutoff line to wonder whether it would be Montreal Impact or Columbus Crew who pipped them at the post this year, after last season’s collapse on the home stretch.
Neither. Coach Ben Olsen steadied his side, took them back to the strong defensive foundation that had seen them gain traction earlier in the year, and trusted that somehow his players would find a way to score. It wasn’t always pretty, and they had luck along the way, but they also scrapped for every ball, in the image of their coach, and got the rewards for their tenacity.
On Wednesday night in New York, Ben Olsen paced the touchline beside a snow covered field, telling anyone who’d listen that his side wanted to play, while New York lobbied for a postponement. Then, the next night, a man down and facing a penalty with 20 minutes to go, his side rallied to win a famous victory and set up this tie.
That may be the danger for this DC side: the saga of the New York series seemed to last forever, so the ultimate victory may have felt cathartic - but it only qualified DC to face another team in a very different environment today. They need to focus from the start and put New York in the past.
Before they do though - one last look...
So I told a lie in the preamble - Houston have been beaten at their new BBVA Compass home, but only by Valencia, during a friendly game in the summer. They’ve wobbled once or twice - needing last minute goals now and then to preserve their record (including a memorable comeback to deny Toronto an unlikely win), but generally the oppressive environment of close stands and concentrated humidity has made this a very uncomfortable venue for opposing teams to come.
It’s been a funny season, for all that. As the stadium was being completed, Houston took the Sporting Kansas City route of starting their season with a run of road games, which they survived pretty intact, before being expected to perhaps storm the East on the back of their stadium boost. Yet while the home results were coming, performances waxed and waned as Kinnear overhauled a rather static looking 4-4-2 for an instantly successful 4-3-3 built round the acquisition of Oscar Boniek Garcia - only to revert to the old formation as the more fluid one began to falter and the team began to drop points in Fall.
Houston squeezed into the playoffs in 5th place in the East. But as Kinnear will tell you, “squeezed into the playoffs” is “into the playoffs”, and he has brought his side to the boil with perfect timing yet again. Ricardo Clark has slotted back in to give some solidity and experience that makes up for some of what was lost with the departure of Geoff Cameron to Stoke, and Will Bruin has been a revelation up front in his sophomore year. And Brad Davis continues to be Brad Davis. The captain of this team, and the core of the team, know about playoffs and how to handle them. That experience might be vital.
Here’s how his side jumped out in front of Sporting KC in the first leg of their semi...
So then there were four...
Welcome to the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final, featuring Houston Dynamo and their unfeasibly persistent home advantage, versus DC United and their unfeasibly successful DeRoless wonders.
Neither side was supposed to be here at this point. The conventional narrative said this was Sporting KC’s year, in the East at least, or perhaps the moment for Hans Backe’s New York to do what they’d been expensively assembled to do, and at least go to MLS Cup.
But you underestimate Houston’s play-off abilities at your peril. Dom Kinnear’s men eased an already stumbling Chicago side out of the exit door at Toyota Park, before bringing their formidable home form to bear to end Sporting’s ambitions for the second successive year - again securing the decisive result on the road. Now they will try to press home the advantage of their extra day’s rest and impressive home record against DC (8-0-1), to jump out in front of them as they did against Sporting.
Meanwhile DC come into this game having beaten their fiercest rivals in an away game, that should have been a home game, behind a penalty save from a reserve goalkeeper, a late, late goal from a rookie, and the storm-battered support of some 700, then some 300, delirious fans over two crazy nights in New York. Those are name-on-the-cup circumstances, but today will be a difficult ask - not just because of the out of the icebox into the fire circumstances of arriving from the North East to the farthest Western boundary of what passes for the Eastern Conference, but because they’re headed to a stadium where the hosts are unbeaten since its opening earlier this year, and where they’ve conceded only 12 goals in 18 games.
This one should be fascinating right from the get go, as Houston may try to land some telling blows early, while DC know that, if they can keep it tight here, their path to an MLS Cup would be entirely at home, no matter who they played in the final. Houston for their part, as the lowest remaining seeds, know that this is their last home game of the season, and will want to set the seal on their new stadium’s fortress status with a clear win, if not knockout, today.
I’ll be back shortly with more build up and team news, but for now get your tweets and emails coming in to me at @KidWeil and firstname.lastname@example.org and read about how the two sides got here in our live reports on Houston Dynamo vs Sporting Kansas City and DC United vs New York Red Bulls.