D.C. United fans have endured a lean spell recently. The Black and Red racked up four MLS Cup championships and four Supporters’ Shield titles in Major League Soccer’s first 12 years before entering a slump that’s seen them fail to reach the play-offs since 2007.
Dwayne De Rosario catapulted United into last year’s play-off race with 13 goals and seven assists following his June arrival from New York Red Bulls. Five defeats in the capital side’s last six games saw them fade to an eventual 13th-place finish.
Saturday’s 3-2 win over Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium suggests that Head Coach Ben Olsen has injected more belief into his team this time around. United extended their unbeaten run to seven games and chalked up back-to-back victories for the first time since 2009.
Olsen retained the starting 11 that blew past New York on April 22. Chris Pontius, who scored three of D.C.’s goals in that impressive 4-1 win, continued his partnership with Maicon Santos up front. Former Dynamo star De Rosario and Nick DeLeon completed a formidable attacking quartet from midfield.
Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear also stuck with his previous week’s line-up that tied 2-2 at Columbus Crew. Playmaker Brad Davis returned to the substitutes’ bench after recovering from a calf strain.
High balls shouldn’t cause too many defensive problems for a team with eight starters listed at 6-feet or taller. Still, Houston gave a precursor to their eventual downfall on just four minutes.
D.C. right-back Robbie Russell launched a long throw that evaded center backs Geoff Cameron and Bobby Boswell before being half-cleared on the bounce by Andre Hainault. DeLeon’s follow-up shot from the edge of the box forced Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall into his first save of the night.
The 21-year-old United rookie showed his skill and confidence on the ball on seven minutes to jink around Hainault and Je-Vaughn Watson on the left touchline before feeding De Rosario in the inside channel. D.C.’s captain found Santos breaking into the penalty area. The Brazilian pulled his shot wide of Hall’s far post.
DeLeon’s appetite for running at defenders, combined with De Rosario’s tendency to drift left, caused some early problems for Hainault. D.C.’s opening goal, however, exposed Houston’s disorderly back line down the opposite side.
Pontius showed his growing awareness of the forward’s role by dropping deep to drag Cameron out of position before spinning into the space behind. Brandon McDonald’s long ball over Cameron sent Pontius through on goal. The Californian skipped around the advancing Hall and got his head up to look for support from a tight angle. Santos shook off Hainault’s attentions in the 6-yard box before heading Pontius’ cross into an unguarded net.
Houston responded quickly with Corey Ashe finding Will Bruin at the edge of the penalty area. The sophomore striker, who scored a hat-trick against D.C. in Houston last year, held the ball up before turning to fire a shot wide of Joe Willis’ left post.
United’s Attacking Zip Troubles Dynamo
The Dynamo were beginning to enjoy longer spells of possession without troubling United’s goal while the hosts posed problems with their sharp passing combinations on the counter-attack. Russell’s composed defensive play started a break on 19 minutes that saw Santos’ deft flick release Danny Cruz on the right. Boswell cut out the former Houston midfielder’s low cross.
Pontius peeled down the left on 27 minutes before stepping inside Boswell to try an ambitious curling shot that Hall comfortably gathered. Santos brought the 13,975 crowd to their feet on 35 minutes with a long-distance blast that wasn’t far off target.
United’s movement disrupted Houston’s defensive shape again on 41 minutes. Cameron advanced over the halfway line to pressure De Rosario. The Canadian skipped away from the challenge and found Pontius who quickly released Cruz down the right. His shot drifted harmlessly wide of Hall’s far post.
Defensive Readjustments Hurt United
Olsen switched three of his defensive players on the stroke of half-time after Emiliano Dudar pulled his hamstring. Perry Kitchen dropped to right-back with McDonald and Russell shifting across the back line and Marcelo Saragosa coming into the midfield. Houston took advantage of the disruption to equalize five minutes after the interval.
Ashe drifted centrally to pick the ball up from the right and switch it to Jermaine Taylor. The Jamaican international attacked the space behind Cruz, shrugging off his opponent before delivering a perfect cross into the heart of D.C.’s penalty area. Bruin found a gap between McDonald and left-back Daniel Woolard and side-footed past Willis from six yards.
United regained the lead three minutes later as Houston’s defensive issues quickly resurfaced. De Rosario took possession on the left corner of Houston’s penalty box after DeLeon’s corner was cleared. The veteran playmaker created a yard of space and curled in a dangerous inswinging cross that floated over Boswell and Pontius before finding the net off the far post.
Blip Doesn’t Dent Young Goalkeeper’s Confidence
Willis was playing just his 11th professional game, yet the 23-year-old United goalkeeper exudes a confidence that belies his inexperience. He dealt impeccably with Houston’s cross balls on a testing night when heavy rain caused many players to slide. Willis’ one error gifted Bruin a second equalizer on 59 minutes.
Kitchen’s hurried clearance rebounded off Ashe to the edge of the penalty area where Bruin struck a firm shot on target. Willis, diving to his right, made firm contact with the wet ball but allowed it to squirm under his body.
The young goalkeeper’s reaction was resolute. Cameron charged down the left wing a minute later before curling in a teasing cross with the outside of his right foot. Willis sprung from his line to grab the ball assuredly.
The University of Denver product then made a vital double-save on 67 minutes to keep the score level, diving bravely at Bruin’s feet as the striker chased a long ball into the box before recovering to swat the loose ball away from Ching.
Disheveled Dynamo Defense Breached Again
De Rosario inspired D.C.’s winning goal on 70 minutes after picking the ball up in midfield and turning away from Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo. The D.C. captain swapped passes with Kitchen before leaving Moffat on the floor with a couple of corkscrew turns. Woolard arrived on De Rosario’s left to flight a cross into the center of Houston’s penalty area. Taylor failed to push out in line with his central defenders, leaving Santos unmarked near the penalty spot. The Brazilian still had plenty of work to do and he planted a powerful header high beyond Hall’s grasp.
Kinnear brought on Davis for Hainault on 72 minutes and pushed Cameron forward into a 3-5-2 formation as the Dynamo chased a point. That left them more exposed to United’s swift counter-attacks and De Rosario nearly killed the game on 82 minutes with what would have been the goal of the season.
The Canadian carried the ball from box to box after D.C. cleared Davis’ corner, twice beating Camargo and spinning away from Moffat before feeding Woolard on the edge of Houston’s penalty area. De Rosario continued his burst into the box to take Woolard’s cross around Taylor with his first touch. Hall spread himself to block De Rosario’s close-range shot.
“There’s something to this team,” said Olsen during his post-game press conference. “They’ve got a little bit of chutzpah.”
That newfound fearlessness will be tested in the next two weeks when United face three consecutive road games at San Jose Earthquakes, Toronto F.C. and in Houston to open the Dynamo’s new BBVA Compass Stadium on May 12.
Houston lacked the inventiveness of Davis in midfield yet still scored twice. The Dynamo could still have earned a point had it not been for some moments of unusually slack defending.