What’s next? That has to be the question D.C. United and it supporters or asking after the Black and Red navigated through two games, two red cards, one hurricane, and one snow storm to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Houston Dynamo.
“This has been a long week and a half, this series seems like it was such a grueling time period,” said United’ head coach Ben Olsen. “There was just so much going on, but I believe in these guys. They gelled and they believed and sometimes belief is enough.”
United will be forced to make adjustments when it starts the series on Sunday in Houston. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was red-carded in the decisive game two semi-final victory over the New York Red Bulls and Andy Najar, who was red-carded in game one of the series, has been hit with an additional two-game suspension.
Najar’s extra penalty was issued by MLS because it said, “Najar’s conduct put the league in disrepute.” Najar had thrown the ball at referee Jair Marrufo after being issued a yellow card. To be sure United could use Najar’s solid defending and clever runs on the right flank, but the team’s depth has prevailed to this point.
Robbie Russell’s season was sidetracked by injury in mid-July, but he looked fully fit as Najar’s replacement on Thursday night. For United it made for a nice finishing touch to the script against the Red Bulls that Russell played the ball to Nick DeLeon for the game-winning goal in the 88th minute.
“I said I didn’t know he (Russell) had an assist in him,” said United midfielder Chris Pontius. “It was a beautiful ball and what a finish by Nick [DeLeon], especially in the 88th minute.”
It all goes back to January when head coach Ben Olsen expressed confidence in the depth his team. Olsen continues to be proven right especially in dealing with his back line. Starting left back Chris Korb missed Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury, but natural midfielder Lewis Neal filled in at that position.
With Hamid out, Joe Willis will start in goal for United. On Thursday Willis stepped in after Hamid’s red card and saved Kenny Cooper’s penalty kick. Confidence in Willis has been high since his United debut in August of last season when he recorded a 4-0 shutout against Vancouver.
Willis went on to record two more shutouts in 2011 and emerged as the clear second-choice goalkeeper ahead of veteran Steve Cronin. Early this season Willis was called on when Bill Hamid was away for U.S. Olympic team duty. In nine starts Willis only lost twice and helped United launch into the season.
It is still hoped that maybe midfielder Dwayne De Rosario could factor for United in this series. United‘s unbeaten run is now nine games since De Rosario was forced to the sideline with a knee injury. For De Rosario it is more likely he could be a possible option for game two of the series against his old team.
De Rosario helped the Dynamo capture two MLS Cups including the 2007 final at R.F.K. Stadium. The Dynamo under head coach Dominic Kinnear has been an amazing franchise. Players like De Rosario, Geoff Cameron, and Stuart Holden have come and gone, but Sunday will mark the fifth time in the Dynamo’s seven year history that it will play in the Eastern Conference final.
Under Kinnear’s direction, the Dynamo is a disciplined team that has also had a knack for developing talent. Will Bruin is having a career year with 12 goals in the regular season and now three goals and one assist in the post-season. On defense the Dynamo are particularly difficult to break down in the tight confines of BBVA Compass Stadium.
Even though it is the Dynamo’s own soccer specific stadium, Houston has kept the dimensions of its field similar to its old home Robertson Stadium. The field at BBVA Compass is only 115 yards long and 70 yards wide. United has never won in Houston and the Dynamo has yet to lose at BBVA Compass in MLS play with a record of 12-0-6.
Maybe the Dynamo’s home record sets up well for United. The Black and Red is getting use to beating the odds.