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MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at D.C. United

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If having a little hill to climb seems somehow discouraging for D.C. United faithful, consider this: it’s only a hill, and not the mountain of a deficit to overcome that we see in the day’s other conference final.

D.C. United fell in Houston, 3-1, and must now make up the two goals when the teams meet at historic RFK Stadium in Sunday’s Eastern Conference final second-leg.

It won’t be easy against a visiting Houston Dynamo side (and its wily manager) that knows, historically speaking better than any MLS side yet, how to piece together a playoff result on the road.

One team will emerge. Either Houston will claim the day and appear in its second consecutive MLS Cup final or D.C. United will overcome the two-goal deficit and host MLS Cup in two weeks.

MLS Eastern Conference finals

Sunday’s Kickoff: RFK Stadium, 4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network

(Official league preview is here)

On D.C. United

  • United knows plenty about sitting behind that dreaded playoff 8 ball. They needed a mighty effort, minus their top player, just to make the 17th MLS post-season “tournament.”  Then they went into New York a week and a half back needing a victory at some point, whether in regulation play, extra time or penalty kicks. Rookie Nick DeLeon supplied the moment, claiming the game-winner in one of Major League Soccer’s most memorable playoffs to date.
  • It certainly looks like D.C. United’s top attacker, out since early August, will make an appearance at some point. Dwayne De Rosario, the 2011 league MVP, seems ready.
  • United is 12-1-5 at RFK this year, with a plus-20 goal difference. That’s a number that can inspire some confidence, for sure. The trick is that a close win won’t do. A two-goal victory will get the series into a 30-minute extra time.
  • Both teams had a full week to recover and get their legs back, which surely helped coach Ben Olsen’s side; his players looked absolutely spent in the final 30 minutes of last week’s loss to Houston. In fact, some of the mental errors that led to goals can probably be traced to a side that was as emotionally spent as physically taxed.
  • Still no Andy Najar, who is suspended. But the bigger loss would be left-sided attacker Chris Pontius, who struggled through a few minutes last week but may have ultimately done further damage to that groin injury.
  • Marcelo Saragosa (knee) is also a concern. Lately he has paired effectively with Perry Kitchen as dual holding midfielders. Spirited center back Brandon McDonald seems ready after some health concern on his part.
  • What Olsen says about his team’s state of mind: “We’re confident in the way we play at home. All year we have been aggressive and gone after teams and scored goals at home. So that part doesn’t necessarily need to change. We need to score goals, though, so there is a little bit of a different mind-set going into this game. It’s still a soccer game and we’re still confident in our ability to win games by two goals at home.”
  • Bill Hamid is back off suspension and available for presumed selection over Joe Willis in goal.
  • Time for long-time under-delivering Designated Player Branko Boskovic to stand and be counted. Period.

On the Houston Dynamo

  • Houston is suddenly limping along, almost as badly as D.C. United. Ricardo Clark missed last week’s match and Adam Moffat left early and looks doubtful for this one. If Clark cannot perform (he remains questionable), Houston is without its top pair of central midfielders.

(MORE: Houston’s central pair hoping for health)

  • Coach Dominic Kinnear’s team may also be without one of its starting center backs, Jermaine Taylor. Canadian international Andrew Hainault does not represent much drop-off, however, so that blow can be mitigated. Similarly, versatile attacker Calen Carr is beat up, but the Dynamo have depth at striker.
  • English veteran Giles Barnes is suddenly a great asset, given the sudden array of ailments in orange.
  • In terms of playing on the road, Houston was among the worst playoff teams, with a 3-9-5 record and a minus-12 goal difference. But … Kinnear’s team did go into Chicago and claim victory in an playoff elimination match. And the men in orange did go into Livestrong (carrying a two-goal margin) and survive. There are memories of last year’s playoff triumphs in Philadelphia and Kansas City to brace the belief.
  • For better or worse, this series will be defined in part by one massive moment and how it could have potentially changed the series. Read about the Hainault decision here and here.
  • Former U.S. national team striker Brian Ching has yet to play much of a role in the playoffs in what appears to be his final season. And speaking of “not playing much of a role,” although in a very different way, it’s time for winger Oscar Boniek Garcia to appear. On the bigger field at RFK (as opposed to the smaller one at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston) he should have room to stretch himself and take on defenders. They’ll need it.
  • Tally Hall, in goal, has been everything Houston has needed. He has allowed just five goals in eight post-season matches over two years.

(MORE: Three Good Questions for Tally Hall)

Bottom line:

Houston cannot afford to sit back the way it did two weeks ago in a second round closer against Sporting Kansas City; there’s no reason to believe the Black and Red will squander as many wonderful chances Sunday as Kansas City did in that conference semifinal.

They’ll need lots of help in midfield possession from Brad Davis; his free kick and corner kick specialty will be of little use if they cannot hold the ball enough to move into attacking positions.

On the other hand, can the home team generate enough offensive push minus a full-strength De Rosario and quite possibly without the inspirational Pontius, too? In fact, without those two (or, those two at full strength, at least) and Najar, United could be without its top three attackers.

Unfortunately, it might all come down to injuries. If Clark can play (and manage to be his usual rangy self) Houston might just win this so-called war of attrition. Or, if De Rosario can play a big enough role, or if Pontius can get on the field for a while, that might just be enough for United to manage the deficit.

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MLS Snapshot: San Jose Earthquakes 1-2 Sporting KC (video)

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The game in 100 words (or less): Too many teams qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. There, I said it. Because MLS rules are written as such, two of Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders will likely make it this year, and that’s two too many. On Saturday, the former most narrowly outplayed an even worse San Jose Earhthquakes side, to the tune of 2-1, to go fifth in the Western Conference and move eight points clear of the 7th-place Sounders. The worst part about the current playoff structure: one of the above mentioned sides will almost certainly get hot in the postseason, after doing very little over the course of 34 games to establish themselves as one of the league’s elite. You know, just like the Timbers did last year. Anyway, Dom Dwyer, Simon Dawkins and Kevin Ellis scored the goals on the night. Neither side is any good, nor should they be in the playoffs. That’s MLS.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

7′ — Dwyer heads home for the early opener — The ball from Paulo Nagamura was inch-perfect, and the header by Dwyer was unstoppable.

42′ — Coelho whiffs, Dawkins makes it 1-1 — That’s just unlucky, if you’re Nuno Coelho.

81′ — Ellis bundles the corner kick home for 2-1 — A fitting winner to this game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tim Melia

Goalscorers: Dwyer (7′), Dawkins (42′), Ellis (81′)

MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 3-3 Colorado Rapids (video)

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Tim Howard #1 of the Colorado Rapids stands in the goal against the FC Dallas at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): And … exhale. Realistically speaking, the Colorado Rapids probably watched their hopes of catching and passing FC Dallas in the race for the Supporters’ Shield when they blew not one, not two, but three leads away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, settling for a 3-3 draw in the end. Dominique Badji put the visitors 1-0 up after eight minutes, which was also the halftime score. The final 39 minutes would feature five goals, and a red card. Kendall Waston brought the hosts level in the 51st minute, then was sent off in the 56th minute, and Shkelzen Gashi made it 2-1 from the penalty spot a minute later. Pedro Morales scored for 2-2 in the 70th, but Gashi hit an inch-perfect free kick for 3-2 just five minutes later. Erik Hurtado scored in the 93rd minute for 3-3. The Rapids are safe in the Western Conference’s playoff places (currently second), while a draw is nowhere near enough to save Vancouver’s season. At least it was exciting, though.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four Five Six moments that mattered

8′ — Badji rolls it into an empty net for 1-0 — Marlon Hairston took one for the team when he clattered into David Ousted, but was a quick enough thinker to lay the ball off for Badji, who made no mistake with his wide open chance.

51′ — Waston rises above the crowd for 1-1 — Kendall Waston … still really big, and dangerous on set pieces.

57′ — Waston sees red, Gashi converts the PK — Kendall Waston … red card. That’s Kendall Waston bingo, right? Gashi converted the ensuing penalty kick, and the Rapids were 2-1 ahead.

70′ — Morales finishes a quick move down the left — Erik Hurtado flashed the skill, Giles Barnes provided the cut-back, and Morales kept his wits about him on the finish. A man down, but back on level terms, for now.

75′ — Gashi hits a free kick pure as can be — Gashi couldn’t have picked the ball up, carried it to goal, and placed it over the line anymore perfectly than he hit this one.

90+3′ — Hurtado bring Vancouver level one last time — To come back from a goal down, and a man down, twice … that’s pretty impressive. It’s far more demoralizing, though, for the Rapids.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Shkelzen Gashi

Goalscorers: Badji (8′), Waston (51′), Gashi (57′ – PK, 75′), Morales (70′), Hurtado (90+3′)

MLS Snapshot: DCU 4-1 Orlando City | Red Bulls 1-0 Impact (video)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: Nick DeLeon #14 and Lamar Neagle #13 celebrate a second half goal by Fabian Espindola #10 of D.C. United (R) against the Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): On Friday, I billed D.C. United vs. Orlando City SC as something a “win to remain in the playoff race” matchup. On Saturday, DCU were the only side to show up to RFK Stadium hoping to further their case for a place in the postseason. Patrick Mullins bagged a brace for Ben Olsen’s side, bringing his tally to seven goals since being acquired via trade in late July, while Lloyd Sam found paydirt for the second time since also being acquired via trade, in early July. Juliao Baptista pulled a goal back for the Lions, 3-0 down by that point. Julian Buescher restored the three-goal lead in the 90th minute, and that was that. Now level on games played with the New England Revolution, DCU currently sit a point ahead of the Revs for the sixth and final playoff place in the Eastern Conference (New England are away to Columbus Crew SC on Sunday).

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

34′ — Mullins taps home to make it 1-0 — Mullins’ instincts inside the penalty area are exceptional. He’s one of those guys who always knows where to be, and exactly when to be there.

51′ — Sam heads past Bendik to double the lead — With the entire Orlando defense seemingly asleep, Sam was left all alone seven yards out.

53′ — Mullins goes far post for 3-0 — The window through which he had to slot this ball was quite small, but no problem for Mullins.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Patrick Mullins

Goalscorers: Mullins (34′, 53′), Sam (51′), Baptista (72′), Buescher (90′)


The game in 100 words (or less): The Eastern Conference is no more discernible today than it was on opening day of the 2016 season. After nearly seven months of games, the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC and New York City FC all sit on 48 points (TFC with a game in hand) after the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. Daniel Royer scored the game’s only goal, right on the hour mark, when it was beginning to look like a breakthrough would never come, for either side. That’s 13 games without a loss for Jesse Marsch’s side (just six wins), who along with the other two sides on 48 points, has secured a place in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs berth.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Piatti blazes wide after a long run — Ignacio Piatti did brilliantly until the finish. He also had Drogba making the underneath run to the far post.

41′ — Bush denies Royer from inside the six — Royer got on the end of this Chris Duvall cross, and had he put it either side of Evan Bush, he’d have made it 1-0 to the home team.

60 ‘ — Royer heads it past Bush to break the deadlock — Duvall once again served up the tantalizing ball from the right flank, and Royer did the rest to bag his first MLS goal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Daniel Royer

Goalscorers: Royer (60′)

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore, center, shields the ball from Philadelphia Union's Richie Marquez, left, as Ken Tribbett looks on during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Another week goes by, and the world remains clueless with regard to the top three places in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Toronto FC entered the weekend with a two-point lead on the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC; then, NYCFC won big on Friday to go a point ahead. With RBNY still to face the Montreal Impact on Saturday, all three sides could finish the weekend on 48 points, a three-way tie atop the East, following TFC’s 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. The home side went down a goal in the first half, via Alejandro Bedoya’s firt MLS goal — a chipped beauty (WATCH HERE) — before Justin Morrow played the role of unlikely hero, snatching TFC’s equalizer in the 70th minute. Saturday’s game marked TFC’s third without Sebastian Giovinco (quad/adductor injuries). TFC have won five of a possible nine points without the reigning — soon-to-be-back-to-back? — MLS MVP.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

25′ — Bedoya chips Irwin for 1-0 — It was just about the most difficult route to goal, but Bedoya wasn’t fazed one bit. Poor Clint Irwin, he was hardly even off his line. (WATCH HERE)

43′ — Irwin makes the point-blank save on Herbers — Reaction saves from point-blank range don’t get much better than this one by Irwin. Keeping his side in it.

70′ — Morrow slots home to bring TFC level — Jonathan Osorio did brilliantly to keep his composure with ample opportunity to take a difficult shot toward goal. Instead, he played Morrow through, and the full back finished the chance like a world-class striker.

90+3′ — Altidore hacked down in the box, no PK given — Ismail Elfath had long ago swallowed his whistle, apparently, because Jozy Altidore was hacked down inside the penalty area by C.J. Sapong, and TFC were absolutely bewildered by the no-call.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Alejandro Bedoya

Goalscorers: Bedoya (25′), Morrow (70′)