By IVES GALARCEP
One squad has the look of a team with the experience and toughness to win a title. The other looks like a team of destiny as it rolls into the conference finals in a nine-game unbeaten streak that began when they lost the reigning league MVP.
The Eastern Conference Finals between the Houston Dynamo and D.C. United kick off on Sunday in Houston and picking a favorite is hardly easy. On one side you have the Dynamo, who showed their poise and attacking quality in beating No. 1 seed Sporting Kansas City. On the other side you have D.C. United, which come in riding an emotional wave after winning a dramatic semifinal series against the New York Red Bulls.
So how do D.C. United and Houston stack up? Both teams boast tough defenses, and dynamic threats on the wing, and both have solid goalkeepers. If there is an edge in the series, it is the Dynamo’s stable of forwards, which includes Will Bruin, Calen Carr, Brian Ching and Mac Kandji. Bruin has hit a new gear in the playoffs and he is good enough to open things up for his fellow forwards.
D.C. United doesn’t boast the same wealth of quality forward options. Ben Olsen deployed Lionard Pajoy as a lone forward in a 4-5-1 against the Red Bulls, and the Colombian striker did a decent job holding up the ball, but provided little in the way of a real attacking threat. Houston has a tougher defense than New York, meaning D.C. could be destined to struggle offensively if they trot out the same system against the Dynamo.
That doesn’t mean D.C. won’t go with five midfielders again. Olsen may no choice but to do it in order to help D.C. win the midfield battle against a strong Dynamo unit that showed its quality in the Sporting KC series against a KC midfield that had dominated opponents for much of the season.
Dwayne DeRosario’s status for the series is still unknown, but if he’s avaiable it could leave Ben Olsen with an interesting decision to make. Without DeRosario, D.C. United has seen their attack struggle, but the squad has also improved as a complete defensive unit. It seems unlikely that Olsen would not start DeRosario if he is healthy enough, but D.C. could wind up sacrificing some defensive quality to help add some punch to an attack that needs it.
Houston enters as the lower seed in the series, but will go in as the favorite on the strength of their form in the Sporting KC victory. The key for D.C. United to avoid KC’s fate is to avoid a bad loss in the opening leg on Sunday in Houston. Th narrow field plays into the tenacity and quality of Houston’s midfield, and strengthens their weapons offensively (service from the flanks) as well as defensively (the abolity to close down attacks).
In order for D.C. United to keep their unbeaten run going, they will need someone to step up offensively and give Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon a third dangerous option. Whether that is Dwayne DeRosario, or Branko Boskovic or Hamdi Salihi, someone must step up for the D.C. attack to have a chance of beating Houston. If not, the Dynamo will book their place in their second straight MLS Cup Final.
Here is a closer look at the Eastern Conference finals.
D.C. UNITED vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO
First leg at BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston: Sunday, 4pm, NBC Sports
Second leg at RFK Stadium, Washington D.C.: Nov. 18, 4pm, NBC Sports
SEASON SERIES: The home team won each of the three meetings between the teams this season, with the Dynamo holding the 2-1 series edge. Houston outscored D.C. United by a combined score of 5-0 in two games at BBVA Compass Stadium (though four of those came against a 10-man D.C. in a blowout win that included an early red card to Bill Hamid).
KEY PLAYERS – D.C. UNITED: M Chris Pontius, GK Bill Hamid, M Brandon McDonald, M Nick DeLeon
HOUSTON DYNAMO: M- Brad Davis, M Oscar Boniek Garcia, F Will Bruin, GK Tally Hall.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH– Brandon McDonald vs. Will Bruin. The Dynamo attack have enjoyed a strong playoff run by Bruin, but McDonald is a tough customer who is coming off an outstanding series vs. the New York Red Bulls. If McDonald can contain Bruin, D.C. has a chance to win the series. If he doesn’t, the Dynamo could roll.
OUTLOOK – D.C. United has been on an impressive run over the past two months, unbeaten in nine and not having lost since Sept. 1st. They have the team defense to make things difficult for Houston, but the real question is whether the D.C. attack can generate goals against Houston’s stifling defense.
The Dynamo should benefit considerably from the suspension of right back Andy Najar, who would have helped D.C. deal with Brad Davis on Houston’s left wing. D.C. has the centerbacks to deal with Will Bruin, but Houston could find success on the flanks. For D.C., getting Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon going at Houston’s fullbacks is their best bet to create chances, but they will still need Branko Boskovic to step up his game (assuming Dwayne DeRosario can’t contribute).
PREDICTION – The absence of Andy Najar will hurt D.C. United against Houston, and will help Brad Davis be even more of a threat in the series, but D.C.’s chances still come down to needing someone else to step up in their attack. Houston’s task is more simple. They just need to keep playing solid defense, keep letting Davis and Boniek Garcia run the attack, and keep letting Bruin, Carr, Ching and Kandji generating and finishing chances. The Dynamo’s advantage at forward makes the difference, while Tally Hall should do his part to keep D.C. United under wraps. The Dynamo post another 2-0 first-leg victory before posting a 1-1 draw at RFK Stadium to reach the MLS Cup Final.
How do you see the series going? Think D.C. United can keep their unbeaten run going, or think the Dynamo are just playing too well right now to be stopped?
Share your thoughts below.