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Battered and unlucky, D.C. United has ways to go for MLS Cup spot

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HOUSTON -- It was the day when the MLS playoffs turned into the limp-offs, the afternoon when the BBVA Compass pitch became the biggest emergency room in southeast Texas.

Come the final whistle, the Houston Dynamo had one -- probably very sore -- foot in the MLS Cup final. A 3-1 win in the first leg of Sunday's Eastern Conference final completed an unbeaten MLS season at their roiling, raucous new home. The campaign began here in May just as it ended in November, with a close win over DC United.

DC entered this match as if fueled by fate, having overcome an injury to its star player in the regular season and the Sandy-enforced loss of home advantage in the semifinal series against the New York Red Bulls and then claimed a dramatic a late win over New York with 10 men to extend the club's first post-season since 2007.

Ben Olsen's side led at the interval on Sunday despite an ever-growing injury list and looked set to spring another shock. Ultimately, DC succumbed to the Dynamo's defiance and was infuriated by a piece of dubious refereeing that had a critical impact on the contest.

DC was unlucky, too. The sort of bad luck that happens to tired players straining every sinew at the end of a long year. When Emiliano Dudar came on for Brandon McDonald in the 56th minute, it completed a hat-trick of injury-impelled substitutions. Chris Pontius and Marcelo Saragosa also departed hurt in the first half. This for a roster already missing the suspended Andy Najar and Bill Hamid and the injured talisman, Dwayne DeRosario.

The Dynamo started without injured mainstays Ricardo Clark, Calen Carr and Jermaine Taylor, then lost Adam Moffat to a chest problem in the first period. Not to mention the half-dozen or so players from the two sides who either began the match carrying knocks or picked them up on a rough pitch in a game replete with predictably bloodthirsty challenges. All in all, it was not an occasion for the purist. More like one for the physiotherapist.

Carr's absence meant a start for Mac Kandji, a curio for being a forward who looks far better outside the area than inside. And once Moffat went off, key creative midfielder Brad Davis was forced into a more circumspect central role, more shield than sword. Moffat was replaced by a fellow Brit, Giles Barnes, who is an exciting dribbler but offers none of the Scot's Rottweiler bite in midfield.

Houston only found its late-season form when head coach Dominic Kinnear got the formation and lineup exactly right after conducting more chemistry experiments than a high-school kid with a Bunsen burner. But DC has proved it can excel without De Rosario, winning six games and drawing three before Sunday in the absence of last year's MVP. Olsen's team has made a virtue out of coping with hardship, overcoming adversity with inspiration and perspiration.

The sense that Houston would be more gravely affected by the personnel changes appeared confirmed by the first half as the visitors took the lead with the help of disorganized defending. After 27 minutes, Lionard Pajoy ran down the left and his shot rebounded off Tally Hall's far post and out to Nick DeLeon, whose attempt was going wide until the defender Andre Hainault deflected it in.

After the break, Houston switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, did a better job of exploiting DC's vulnerability on the flanks and scored three times, rediscovering its serrated edge to take ruthless advantage of a momentum shift midway through the period. The equalizer came seven minutes into the second half as a quick free kick caught DC dozing, Boniek Garcia crossed from the left and the unmarked Hainault slotted in from six yards.

The defender should not have been on the pitch. Late in the first half, he hauled down Raphael Augusto on the edge of the area when the DC man was clean through. Referee Ricardo Salazar gave nothing. Not that Salazar was afraid to send off somebody: he ejected a DC coach, Pat Onstad, for complaining over-zealously at half time.

"Everybody in the stadium, everybody on our bench, everybody on their bench, everybody at home saw that it's a red card," Olsen, the head coach, told The Washington Post. Everybody except the one person whose opinion truly mattered.

Twenty minutes into the second half, the Dynamo's Bobby Boswell headed a goal-bound effort off the line. Within seconds Will Bruin scored his fourth goal of this postseason to put the Dynamo 2-1 up. Barnes surged down the left and crossed for the striker to bundle in a messy goal. Nine minutes before the end, Kofi Sarkodie crowned a well-constructed move with a crashing low finish to give Houston a two-goal advantage heading into the return leg. The winner will face the Los Angeles Galaxy or Seattle Sounders on December 1.

Late on, Brian Ching came off the bench for what may prove the veteran's last appearance before his home crowd. He is rumored to be contemplating retirement and, like his teammates, was loudly cheered by a stadium record crowd of 22,101.

No one wants the soundtrack to the post-season to be REM's Everybody Hurts, but the schedule does not help: if the 34-game marathon doesn't get you, the five- or six-game sprint to the final might.

DC was playing on only two days' rest after its Eastern Conference semi-final, second leg victory over the Red Bulls was delayed by a day to Thursday because of poor weather, the knock-on effect causing this match to be pushed back from Saturday to Sunday. The Dynamo had an extra 24 hours' rest having defeated Sporting Kansas City 2-1 on aggregate last Wednesday. But since as the fifth seed it needed to beat the Chicago Fire in a one-off knock-out contest to reach the East's final four, this was the fourth match in twelve days for last year's defeated finalists.

This year MLS plays its first dozen post-season fixtures over twelve days, yet there is a week between the Conference finals' first and second legs. DC hosts Houston at RFK Stadium in the return next Sunday. Then there is a thirteen-day wait for the grand showpiece. A more even spread of matches would surely help preserve fitness and maintain momentum for clubs, fans and promoters. Instead, it feels like the binge ends today and the fast starts tomorrow.

"This week off is going to be huge. It was long, it was a grind, a lot of teams could have put their head down and said they were tired but this is a strong group physically and mentally," Bruin said after the game.

Why so many injuries? "I think it's a lot of games in a short period of time, travel, it's difficult," Kinnear said. "At this particular time you're going with your starters more than in the regular season. I think the week's break is good for everybody, the soccer will be better because players will be fresher."

A two-goal margin was a very uncomfortable cushion for Houston against Sporting KC in the semifinals and DC has not lost an MLS match at its stadium since opening day. Still, banged-up and angry, that "team of destiny" tag now hangs loosely, precariously, on its jerseys. Minds are willing, but bodies are battered.