WASHINGTON – D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen gingerly stepped around the video cameras amassed in the media room at RFK Stadium Sunday with his head bowed, partly by his side’s season-ending aggregate loss to Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference Final and partly to avoid the power cables snaking across the floor.
Olsen arrived at the podium, placed his folded suit jacket on the table and took a seat behind the assorted microphones and voice recorders. His tie hung loosely beneath the opened top button of his shirt. The pained expression of defeat was etched across his face. He stretched back, inhaling deeply, before letting out a soothing breath as his hands cupped the back of his head.
“As much as this game was about the offense and us having to score goals, it was also about keeping them off the board,” said Olsen, talking about the “disciplined aggression” required by his team to overcome a 3-1 deficit from the first leg at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium on Nov. 10. A defining moment of brilliance from Dynamo captain Brad Davis after 33 minutes of Sunday’s 1-1 tie practically ended United’s hopes of lifting a fifth MLS Cup on Dec. 1.
Olsen’s pale cheeks gradually filled with color during his 12-minute address as he spoke proudly of the foundation that his team has built since his initial appointment as interim coach in August 2010. United were the worst side in MLS when the former D.C. midfielder, then 33, was appointed as the youngest head coach in the league’s history a few months later. The roster has since been overhauled and United finished this year’s regular season in third place overall, securing a playoff berth for the first time in five years before injuries and suspensions took their toll.
D.C. entered Sunday’s second leg without the creative talents of captain Dwayne De Rosario, top scorer Chris Pontius, Andy Najar and Lewis Neal – a selection headache that led Olsen toward a 4-4-2 formation that played into the visitors’ hands. Houston’s stout, disciplined back line repelled D.C.’s early forays with center-backs Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor dominant in the air and in their reading of United’s through balls looking for forward pair Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos. A defensive lapse at the other end allowed Davis to set up Honduran Oscar Boniek Garcia for his first playoff goal.
Three D.C. players hesitated as Houston’s Davis, Will Bruin and Adam Moffat converged on a loose ball on the right edge of United’s penalty area. Davis took charge of the situation, driving into the box past Dejan Jakovic’s outstretched leg before hooking the ball back to the six-yard line for Boniek Garcia to smash it high into Bill Hamid’s goal.
“It hurt,” Olsen said. “I didn’t think they had much up until that point.”
Second-Half Push Comes Too Late To Save United’s Season
Neal, who woke Sunday with a tight quad muscle, did enter the game at half-time as Olsen sacrificed holding midfielder Marcelo Saragosa and moved Branko Boskovic behind his front two. Robbie Russell fired a six-yard volley over the bar on 48 minutes after Pajoy failed to control an inswinging delivery by Chris Korb. The left-back’s dangerous ball resembled the cross that New York Red Bulls’ Roy Miller volleyed into the same net two weeks earlier.
The cavalry arrived around the hour mark. Hamdi Salihi replaced Pajoy and De Rosario brought the sellout 20,015 crowd to its feet when he came on for center-back Emiliano Dudar. It was the Canadian international’s first appearance since injuring his left knee on World Cup qualifying duty in Panama on Sept. 11.
Salihi’s touch evaded him on 67 minutes, allowing Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall to smother the ball after Santos flicked on Nick DeLeon’s long pass. The Albanian striker’s rustiness showed again one minute later when he was sent clear in the penalty area with space to shoot. He paused, stepped inside Corey Ashe, and ultimately turned into traffic. Salihi did better to connect with De Rosario’s flick on 71 minutes, but his over-the-shoulder volley flew straight at Hall.
“He gets into great spots,” said Olsen of the former Rapid Vienna forward. “When he’s in form those are goals. It’s not easy when you’re sitting a long time and just getting 10 minutes here and there to hit that full form.”
Houston had been content to let time drift away and to choose their moments to attack, though Dominic Kinnear’s men pushed numbers forward whenever the chance arose. They should have inflicted further damage as D.C. left fewer players in defense. Dudar made a couple of saving 1-vs-1 tackles on Bruin before his departure. Macoumba Kandji flashed a cross along the six-yard line that begged to be converted after he had skipped around Russell, and the Senegalese forward missed two clear looks when sent through on Hamid’s goal. The 21-year-old stopper made an excellent save with his left arm on 78 minutes when Kandji sent a low shot arcing toward the far corner.
That kept D.C. alive, and Boskovic injected further life into the capital side on 83 minutes with a goal that his second-half display merited. The Montenegrin international dribbled through the heart of the Dynamo’s defense before steering a clever right-foot shot inside Hall’s near post.
De Rosario’s flicked header from Neal’s cross two minutes later drifted wide. Former Orlando City player Neal shot straight at Hall from a tight angle on 86 minutes, and De Rosario’s left-foot shot from the edge of the box on 90 minutes failed to trouble Houston’s goalkeeper.
“We could have made that really interesting down the stretch if we just had a little bit more composure in front of goal,” Olsen said. “It was a game where there were three goals out there. We weren’t clinical enough in the final third.
“At some point it’s just not going to be enough if you’ve got injuries and you’re not playing with your full squad, but I’m glad we hung in this long,” said the former United States national team player. “It shows the spirit that this group has because things have not been easy.
“We changed formations. We’ve changed styles of play throughout the season. The way we’ve adapted is probably the story of the year.”
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