By: Kyle McCarthy
D.C. United travels to Houston to kick off the two-legged Eastern Conference championship on Sunday afternoon. Here are five points to watch as the two sides prepare to duel at BBVA Compass Stadium:
1. Mitigating the damage: United suffered two defeats in the Oven this season. Ben Olsen and his players would probably take a repeat of the stadium-opening 1-0 setback on May 12, but they simply cannot afford another 4-0 thumping as they did on July 15 if they want to secure a berth in MLS Cup.
2. Maintaining the necessary energy: In order to avoid a repeat of that July debacle, United must somehow find a way to avoid the common second-half fade most teams suffer in Houston. This gritty group won’t back down (as evidenced by the ridiculousness in Harrison on Thursday night), but it must find some way to grind through a match that will prove even more difficult as it enters the late stages.
3. Retaining possession: The best way for United to keep its shape probably involves acquiring and maintaining possession for decent stretches. It didn’t happen often enough in Harrison, and it won’t be easy to do so in Houston with Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat poised to harass Branko Boskovic for as long as he stays on the field. But United must find a way to retain possession in order to survive.
4. Pressing the issue: Houston must make life difficult for United from the opening whistle. It has to pile on the pressure by encouraging Corey Ashe and Kofi Sarkodie to overlap wisely (too much endeavor will open up room for Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius) and test the United fullbacks (Olsen currently has selection issues at both spots with Chris Korb hurt and Andy Najar suspended). An early goal would set the stage for a successful series.
5. Avoiding the killer blow: While the Dynamo would love to replicate the two-goal win it claimed in the first leg against Sporting Kansas City, it can’t afford bookings for Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia and Tally Hall. All three men would miss the second leg if they incur a first-leg booking. Houston can overcome plenty of obstacles, but the prospect of playing at RFK Stadium without any of those three key players could prove daunting even for this group.