Talk about a game of two halves... New York looked imperious in the first half — frustrating Houston with a disciplined defense and hitting them on the counter with a pair of clinical goals.
But then a sloppy defensive clearance was hammered home early in the second half by Ricardo Clark, and despite a brief attempt by New York to impose their will by going on the attack, they lost all momentum when they lost their key defender Jamison Olave to a dubious red card. After that it was always going to be a siege and in the end Omar Cummings first goal for Houston almost seemed like an inevitability. And any complaints New York might have had about the Olave red card had to be set against the fact they were very lucky not to give up a penalty at the death.
No Olave for the second leg and that could be huge. He's key for their defense and they looked ragged without him. And most importantly the Dynamo have finally taken something from a game against New York this year and will go to the second leg with their hopes high. Their record in New York is poor, but as we've just seen regular season precedents don't mean much in playoff soccer.
We'll be back later with LA vs RSL. For now, good evening.
Final score: Houston 2-2 New York
Final thoughts in a moment.
90 mins +4
Ooooooooh. That decision went New York's way. Cummings twists on the edge of the box and goes sprawling over Sekagya's leg. It looked like a penalty. Nothing doing. And that will be that.
90 mins +3
Sam is bundled over and New York have a free kick. They're now just hoping to get out of here with a draw. They launch it forward, but there'll be another Houston attack...
GOAL! HOUSTON 2-2 NEW YORK (CUMMINGS!)
It had been coming. Davis cross headed goal wards by Boswell. Robles dives to save it but can only tee it up for Cummings for the tap in. Shade of Mike Magee's opener at Red bull Arena last week.
90 mins +1
Crowd roar at the mention of those four minutes. Nearly everyone in New York's half now. Corner...
Robles being warned to take a goal kick quickly by the referee. No particular urgency at any set piece from New York, obviously.
Final moment of normal time and a long ball forward intended for Weaver bounces straight to Robles. Four minutes to be added on.
Houston's only home defeat ever in the MLS playoffs came in 2008…against New York. are they headed for another one? New York look very tired now.
Driver's cross from the left bounces through a forest of players and arrives at Boniek Garcia on the edge of the box, but he can't quite get over the ball AND keep some power in the shot, and the ball loops harmlessly to a grateful Robles.
Geting late — this last few minutes could be crucial. If Houston level they'll come to Red Bull Arena on a high and facing a second choice defense. Weaver came on for Brunner, who labored valiantly in the end, by the way.
Driver sends an awkward cross over and Robles has to leap to gather it under his bar. He does.
Eroc Alexander limps off the field and it's an attacker to replace him — Bradley Wright-Phillips comes on.
New York get another passage of play in the Houston half, and now Carney is given a yellow, possibly for time-wasting. New York keep the move going via Henry, but then a poor giveaway by Barklage threatens to allow Houston a breakaway until he fouls and picks up a yellow of his own.
Cam Weaver comes on to the field for Houston to try and force the tie...
Bruin forges into the box on the right and slides the ball to his left where Driver has lots of time, but his decision to send the ball back to the near post to wrong foot the keeper, fails to kept the shot on target. Crowd on its feet for a second, but New York breathe again.
New York get a little respite with a throw in the Houston half, but Lloyd Sam has too much to do chasing the flick on from it and that will be a goal kick. Then Omar Cummings in turn just fails to reach a ball over the top of Carney which would have left him in a huge amount of space down the right. Houston 1-2 New York — heading for a tense final ten minutes.
Houston gather themselves in the New york half for another assault. Davis sends in a tempting cross that's eventually booted clear somewhat inelegantly by McCarty.
New York have both scored and conceded a lot of goals late this season. And now they have another corner to defend. Davis with the in swinger...
…and Brunner gets up at the back post to head juuuuuuuust wide. Great corner, almost matched by the effort on goal.
Decent enough crowd after all. Tom Dart drops by with the figure...
Still a fair few orange seats visible though. Those here may have a lot to cheer about if Houston can pull off this comeback.
Bruin has a snapshot blocked by Sekagya on the edge of the box. All Houston at the moment, and Petke responds by bringing on Lloyd Sam for Luyindula. He'll try to use his running to give Houston pause about throwing men forward. Certainly New York can't sit back as they've been doing since the red card.
Cahill back in midfield now, as the Red Bulls try to regroup. Houston trying to pull New York around with their passing now, but Barklage and Cahill get it clear, only to invite another attack.
Luyindula tries to put his foot on it and runs wide, but only into trouble, and his attempted pass forward is cut out by Boswell.
New York happy to hoof the ball clear any old how as it bounces around their box for a moment. Referee Ricardo Salazar may have changed the whole series there. Looking at the replay it still looks a very harsh red.
Andrew Driver comes on for Creavalle as The Dynamo go for it in attack. Houston 1-2 New York — for now...
As much as Henry or Cahill, Olave is probably one of the key players on the New York team. Without him on the field, the Red Bulls are a lot more vulnerable at the back, even with ten men.
Barklage comes on for Johnny Steele in the wake of the decision. From controlling the game, New York now face a siege for 22 minutes.
RED CARD FOR JAMISON OLAVE!
That's huge. New York down to ten men after an ill-timed tackle on Cummings out wide sees Olave sent off with a straight red. That looked harsh, but now New York have lost a key player for the rest of this game and the return leg.
…Henry flicks it into the box. It's headed clear, but New York retain possession, only for Holgersson's ungainly attempt to cut inside Ashe on the right, fail and lead to a free kick for Houston as Holgersson scrambles awkwardly to regain possession. Houston want a yellow for him, but the referee settles for awarding a free kick.
Crowd beginning to stir a little after this latest sequence, and now Barnes has a go from distance but it's straight at Robles, who collects safely.
It's the last act for Barnes, who comes off for Omar Cummings.
Carney tries to find Stele down the left, but that was a rather lackadaisical ball and Houston can come forward. Clark misjudges his final ball though and New York come clear. Game opening up a little.
Now New York have a dangerous central free kick as Boniek Garcia fouls Henry and gets a yellow for his troubles. It's a little far out...
Robles has to head the ball clear outside his box and the crowd bay for a Houston player to lob him. McCarty closes down frantically to prevent it, but Houston keep the move going and pick up their first corner.
Davis sends it low to the near post and Sekagya does well to block Bruin's side foot shot. A goal kick is given though. Still Houston 1-2 New York
Good sustained period of possession by New York ends with a poor final touch into the box by McCarty and for a second they're played at their own game as Houston break through Davis, but Olave steps across smoothly to see off the danger.
New York definitely seeing attack as best form of defense for the moment, and pushing men forward. They probe around the final third looking for an opening but eventually concede possession.
Great start to the second half for Houston, but poor defending from New York for once. Will they go back on the front foot? They seem to try to, but then a poor touch from Holgersson gives up a throw when he had space to send a cross in.
Brunner still struggling by the way. Now Steele floats in a dangerous looking cross that Hall misjudges and then claims at the second attempt despite pressure from Henry. It looked a legitimate challenge, but the New York player gets a soft yellow.
GOAL! HOUSTON 1-2 NEW YORK (CLARK!)
Well then… Davis gets to the byline, and sends a cross in that bounces and looks to have been cleared by Carney, but his touch is poor and straight to Clark on the edge of the box. He hammers a shot goal wards and it deflects slightly off Olave and past a stranded Robles. Game on...
Wondering what Houston subs we'll see, and when.
The Dynamo fashion half a chance as a teasing ball is lobbed over the defense at an angle, looking for the open Bruin, but Olave gets just enough of his head on it to deflect the ball out of danger. Houston follow up quickly with another Davis free kick, but it fails to clear Cahill again and then a foul on Luyindula stalls any momentum. Houston 0-2 New York
Robles has to race out of his goal to clear a ball over the top, which he does, still showing no particularly difficulty with his movement.
Now Boniek Garcia and Barnes combine well on the right to send a deep cross to the back post for Davis, who climbs on Holgersson to get a head on the ball, but it bounces harmlessly to Robles. Holgersson looks a little groggy getting up from the challenge though.
We're off again. New York kick off.
New York looked very solid in that first half - better than I can ever remember a New York side playing in the playoffs. They were organized and compact to restrict Houston in attack, and their second goal in particular was straight out of the Mike Petke folder marked "game plan". Henry's invention made the first, and it was his pass that started the move that led to the second. He and Cahill look up for this.
Inevitably, Houston had a lot of possession, but with the exception of Boniek Garcia, who was lively throughout, and a couple of flashes from Sarkodie, didn't seem to have a lot of urgency about them until they were already 2-0 down. They will go in with a little encouragement at some glimpses of goal they got in the last five minutes, when we finally saw Bruin and Barnes get involved, but they need more invention from those front players. Houston can not afford to give up another goal or this tie is surely over, so they can't commit too many men forwards or New York will destroy them on the counter.
Half time: Houston 0-2 New York
Half-time thoughts in a moment.
45 mins +1
Houston gather themselves for one more attack, but Boswell, who had the right idea, can't pick out Sarkodie or Garcia as he tries to pass down an open lane on the right and New York have a goal kick. There'll be one minute of added time.
It starts with a Houston free kick in their own half, which they play short, then lose possession, and that's that for the half.
Much more encouraging from Houston as Barnes feeds Bruin in the box and the forward twists into space past a crowd of defenders to get his shot off. Sekagya has done just enough to force him to hit it high though and it flies over. But just signs Houston are finding space now.
A minute later Boniek Garcia has more room on the right than he has all half, but overhits his cross.
Davis does very well under pressure in defense to force the ball forward and in fact initiate a move that ends with a poor cross from Bruin, with New York off-balance for once. But a couple of poor decisions by Carney concede first possession and then another dangerous looking free kick position. Houston take it short and waste it though.
New York have a throw deep in Houston territory but understandably reluctant to over-commit personnel. They push the ball around a little in the Houston half without any great urgency and the ball eventually drifts back to Hall. Half-time approaches and at the moment the Red Bulls are looking pretty comfortable — Houston 0-2 New York
…Boswell gets his head to the free kick and flicks the ball on rather too firmly and it flies high and over.
Houston still plugging forward, but not generally switching play quick enough to trouble the Red Bulls, but now Boniek Garcia cuts inside on Steele and draws the foul and a yellow card for the Northern Irishman. Dangerous spot near the corner of the box for Davis to deliver from on the free kick...
That goal was initiated by Henry picking up the ball on the edge of his own area by the way. Now Houston are in a real bind — they need at least one goal, surely, but New York have picked them off on the counter ruthlessly. No Dominic Kinnear to reorganize them at half time, either.
GOAL! HOUSTON 0-2 NEW YORK (ALEXANDER!)
Brunner looking a little rough again after another clash with Cahill that earns the latter a brief talking to.
Houston pile men forward and are caught out again as McCarty looks up, sends a ball forward for Cahill, who in turn finds Alexander in acres of space on the right. He races into the box, cuts inside and shoots inside the near post with Hall anticipating a shot in the other direction. Houston in all sorts of trouble now.
Houston with a free kick wide right that will invite Davis to drop one in, which he does. But Cahill is right there to head clear. Boniek Garcia tries to force the ball back into the danger area by wriggling into the box with the ball, but just overruns it and that will be a goal kick. Half an hour gone and it's Houston 0-1 New York
Better from Houston as Sarkodie gets forward to meet a touch back from Boniek Garcia. His shot blazes over the bar but he caught Cahill ball-watching.
Houston now a fraction quicker in their passing as they try to force their way back and Sarkodie gets space to send a tempting cross in from the right that Sekagya has to stoop to head clear.
Sarkodie runs straight at Carney on the right, but gets nothing from the referee as he flings himself to the ground.
Houston had a glimmer of a move just before the goal where their speed of play opened up the Red Bulls down the left. They need to do a little more of that from time to time — they're a little one-dimensional at the moment.
That was a great header by Cahill, who punches the corner flag, as is his wont, in the aftermath. But it was also a great cross from henry, who let the ball run across him perfectly to make the space and position to curl the cross in.
GOAL! HOUSTON 0-1 NEW YORK (CAHILL!)
New York have a free kick just inside the Houston half and it's driven forward and up and forward and up by Henry — floating harmlessly into the crowd. Wasted chance to test the Dynamo in the box there.
But now Luyindula starts a move that ends with Henry sending a perfect cross over for Cahill (who else?) to head past a stranded Hall to give New York the lead!
Luyindula puts his head in bravely to keep a New York move going, but might have wished he hadn't bothered after Holgersson's aimless ball forward a second later.
Houston tarry a little in the New York half then burst into life with a couple of quick flicks from Davis and Ashe, but they can't get the ball to fall for them. Still Houston 0-0 New York
That recent move was of the compact, countering variety that the Red Bulls have had success against Houston with at this stadium so far this season. Luyindula adapting promisingly to his revised role as a playmaker.
Now New York have a throw deep in Houston territory after a Steele cross is blocked by Boniek Garcia. They can't do anything particularly dangerous with it though, and Hall will boot clear from the Houston goal.
Low, slow cross from the left by Davis forces Olave and Holgersson to improvise a clearance that concedes a throw and Houston begin their probing again.
There's always a danger to doing that of course, and Luyindula intervenes with a tackle high up the field than almost feeds Steel in acres of space with a low pass that Hall has to be quick out to again.
Houston trying some patient build up play in the New York half, but the Red Bulls remaining reasonably compact for now, and they can come forward as the Houston move breaks down.
Henry sends another testing ball into the box and Hall has to be down sharpish to smother the ball.
We may see an early change. Brunner has been struggling a little since that early tangle with Cahill and Houston may have to change one of their central defenders.
Speaking of mooted changes, Robles just took a goal kick and looked perfectly comfortable — he wasn't kicking by the end of the Chicago game last week.
Creavalle gets the ball clear under pressure from Cahill, and then McCarty upends Boniek Garcia as Houston try to spring forward.
In keeping with the theme of this weekend's games so far, there's the faint outline of gridiron markings on the field by the way. Which is better than the faint outline of a soccer field we saw at Gillete Stadium for the Revs game...
Still Houston 0-0 New York.
Lovely turn and pass from Henry down the right center channel picks out Johnny Steele, who momentarily has the beating of his defender, but in trying to cut back onto his left foot (critics would say, "his only foot"), Steele loses the ball. Couple of lively creative flashes from Henry early though.
At the other end Ricardo Clark has a speculative right footed shot from outside the box, but drags it wide.
Long aimless ball from Boswell can't find Clark and as Houston press they're penalized for a Boniek Garcia foul on McCarty. Cautious start.
Now Carney tries a long raking ball of his own, but Hall does well to claim it with Cahill challenging in the box.
Boniek Garcia's mini duel with Carney will be a key one today. he was bundled out of possession in that last sequence.
New York try to force their way upfield and earn free kick as Luyindula is forced off his feet by Clark.
And from nowhere Henry improvises a dipping lob that drops just inches past the post, though Hall was watching it out in fairness.
Houston actually passed the ball cautiously around for the first ten seconds, before Cahill or any other New york player could get a touch. In fact Cahill's first touch is a rather rough one on Eric Brunner, who needs a quick rest afterwards.
Barnes and Garcia try to get a little move going down the right, but McCarty steps across and forces a throw.
We're off. Houston kick off. Tim Cahill immediately fails to score and we will now spend the rest of the game scrutinizing him for signs that he can somehow play his way out of such an alarming slump...
NBC are covering this game and Arlo White has made a return from Premier League duties overseas to bring his particular brand of stentorian urgency to describing the match.
The national anthem is being played now — hopefully Arlo is joining in with gusto.
OK, next word you hear from me will be "Peep" (or "PEEEEEEEEEP!" in Arlospeak)
…still not exactly awesome looking for a playoff game, at least upon giving the stadium the eye test. Pretty full in midfield, but the ends and upper stands looking a little bare for the moment.
Teams are about to come onto the field.
Both those games are poised very nicely, though the Sounders in particular have a tough task getting a win in Portland — nobody's done that since Montreal Impact in March. But Ossie alonso's last minute goal gave them a chance at least.
I said before the New England game that anything less than a win at home would probably leave them too much to do at Sporting Park in the return leg. They duly delivered with a 2-1 victory, but for the brief moment when they led 2-0 must have been dreaming of putting the game beyond a frustrated Kansas City before the first leg was over. As it is Portland and the Revs both take 2-1 leads into those second legs.
Houston: Hall; Sarkodie, Boswell, Brunner, Ashe; García, Creavalle, Clark, Davis ©; Barnes, Bruin
New York: Robles; Holgersson, Sekagya, Olave, Carney; Alexander, McCarty, Luyindula, Steele; Cahill, Henry
Pretty much as you were for both teams, with the exception of the slightly more rugged Alexander starting on the right for New York, with the possibility of Sam coming in later to run at tired legs. And Robles came through a week’s managing of the injury he picked up last week. He can expect a physical game in Houston. Interesting to see how confident he is coming for Davis’s crosses etc.
Twitter stats experts speak
(Das Fro typed this en route to the casino to test their foolproof roulette system)
New York Red Bulls
Most of what you need to know about the current New York mood can be seen in this video (rather moving hearing Thierry Henry’s “Eighteen years!” line to Petke):
Any New York fans might want to look at that one now. Because in a few minutes time they’ll be chewing their nails again. Only one injury doubt coming into this one — Luis Robles took a knock in the Chicago game and had trouble kicking towards the end of that match. He sat out a couple of days training this week, but was expected to start, as of a few hours ago.
What is it with the Dynamo and November? Admittedly this game will probably give us a clearer sight of their playoff credentials than the game against Montreal which saw the Impact’s helter skelter slide down the standings take a small skip over the cut off barrier for the playoffs, before careening to an ungainly halt in a pile of red cards, recriminations and Will Bruin goals.
Aside from the ease of a three goal win and having the likes of Ricardo Clark, Bruin, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis all available for this playoff run (something they've not been able to rely on throughout the regular season), the Dynamo will take the following positives into tonight’s game:
• Bruin, as well as scoring, generally looked sharp and confident and was getting shots on target all evening
• Clark continued the good form of the last couple of months - how he does in midfield may be key to their hopes in this series
• Corey Ashe didn’t get himself suspended for this one, despite being understandably incensed by Marco di Vaio appearing to rake his face in the game-end melee on Thursday.
They’ll also take the following negatives.
• That central defense still looks awfully vulnerable
• Their coach is suspended after encroaching on the field during the above-mentioned game-end melee. No Dominic Kinnear in the locker room or bench tonight. How that influences the Dynamo’s vaunted playoff-game-management we shall see.
It's not often that the coach and players of a team who topped the regular season league table, and who beat their forthcoming opponents three times by a combined total of 9-1 during said season, get to claim to be "underdogs" for that imminent match-up without being laughed out of town for undue caution. But it's a measure of the weight of playoff history in favor of Houston Dynamo and against New York Red Bulls, that nobody is awarding this Eastern Conference semi-final to the Supporters Shield-winning New York before it's started — least of all their coach Mike Petke.
You can understand why. In the last three years alone the Red Bulls have been at this stage three times and three times they've been beaten — as San Jose, LA Galaxy and DC United have pushed past them over two games. And let's not even get into what happened before that — the fact is that the Red Bulls are generally bad at playoffs, while their opponents Houston Dynamo have been to four of the last seven MLS Cup finals, including the last two.
But another fact changes forever last week — the one that read, "New York Red Bulls have never won a trophy". Sunday's emphatic and cathartic 5-2 victory over Chicago Fire brought the Red Bulls the Supporters Shield and ensured that former player turned first year coach Mike Petke will never have to pay for a sweater vest in Harrison ever again.
The next goal is to navigate the playoffs and bring an MLS Cup final to New York, as number one seeds. But they couldn't have asked for a more challenging start. The Dynamo, under Dominic Kinnear, probably came into these playoffs in some of the least convincing form they've ever mustered at this stage of the year, after a season marked by injuries and international absences had robbed them of personnel and injuries.
But Houston could scarcely have hoped for better tune up opponents than a wretched Montreal Impact in the playoffs and they duly bounced past all-remaining eight men of them, and with non-scoring goalscorer Will Bruin getting a brace to get his personal form right back on track. Their confidence will be high and if they could get their noses in front early, this game could get very interesting indeed.
We'll find out how it unfolds shortly. I'll be back soon with more team news and build up, but for now watch how Houston got here below, and start getting your tweets and emails coming in to @KidWeil or firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll be back in the time it takes to stare down the person trying to start a Mexican Wave in the seat next to you...