We have reached the end of HoustonDynamo.com's countdown of the Top 10 Dynamo games of 2012. With many great games to choose from, it was difficult to settle on ten, and tougher still to decide how to rank them. We unveiled one game per day, with highlights and a look back at what made the game special. Now, here is #1:
Houston Dynamo 3 : 1 D.C. United
November 11, 2012 - BBVA Compass Stadium
Eastern Conference Championship leg 1
Entering the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship between D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo, one area that seemed particularly important to each club was depth. The Dynamo were set for their fourth game in 12 days in a season that began eight months before and included 34 regular season games, four more in the CONCACAF Champions League, one in the U.S. Open Cup and three in the playoffs.
United was preparing for its third game in nine days and had the misfortune of having to defeat two opponents – the New York Red Bulls and Mother Nature – in the Eastern Conference semifinals. After a blizzard postponed their second leg against the Red Bulls for one night, United was forced to play on a Thursday night in Harrison N.J., travel to Houston on Friday, and then play the Dynamo on Sunday.
The depth of each squad also seemed certain to play a role due to injury concerns for both teams. The Dynamo were missing forward Calen Carr after he suffered a hamstring strain in the second leg of their series with Sporting Kansas City and defender Jermaine Taylor, who sprained his left knee in the first leg of the series. Midfielder Ricardo Clark would also miss the game with a groin strain.
D.C. United’s leading scorer and all-star Chris Pontius was carrying a groin strain while starting midfielder Marcelo Saragosa had a hamstring problem and regular defender Brandon McDonald had a calf ailment. United was also missing 2011 league M.V.P. Dwayne De Rosario, out since September with a left MCL sprain, and starting left back Andy Najar, who was suspended after throwing a ball at a referee in the New York series.
Both clubs, it appeared, would have to lean upon its reserves in this game. Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear took a measured approach, trusting the bench that was mostly responsible for an undefeated Champions League campaign and MLS Reserve League division title, by resting Carr, Clark and Taylor.
D.C. United, in the postseason for the first time in five years, took a bolder approach, despite a tempting option to rest its ailing players in hopes of saving them for the home leg of the series, a week later at RFK Stadium. Ben Olsen started Pontius, Saragosa and McDonald, clearly hoping to return home in decent position to with the series. Unfortunately, none of the three players were able to finish the match.
The Dynamo made the most of all of their advantages that afternoon, scoring three unanswered goals in the second half for a 3-1 win and another commanding position in the 2012 playoffs. The victory – No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Dynamo games of 2012 – was a magical conclusion to a dreamlike inaugural season at BBVA Compass Stadium. It was also the first-ever playoff meeting between two clubs with a total of MLS Cup titles between them.
Mother Nature dealt the Dynamo a nice had that day. It was 81 degrees at kickoff on the mid-November day in Houston, nearly identical to the 82-degree afternoon that graced the same teams on May 12 for the opening of the stadium. The Dynamo are nearly unbeatable when it is 80 degrees or more at kickoff. Houston went 12-1-4 this season when the temperature was 80 degrees or more at kickoff. Combined with its 9-1-6 record in the same climate in 2011, the club is 21-2-10 since 2011 when the temperature is 80 degrees or more at the start of a game.
United was forced to substitute Pontius after just 12 minutes, as he aggravated his groin injury and could not continue. Despite the early letdown, D.C. created the first big chance of the game in the 16th minute. A throw-in from their own defensive half of the field was settled by Branko Boskovic, who produced a clever flick that sent Nick DeLeon in alone behind the Dynamo defense. DeLeon’s cross found Lewis Neal at the back edge of the box, but his shot was stopped by Tally Hall.
D.C. would not waste its chance 11 minutes later, turning a counter attack into a goal for a 1-0 lead. The Dynamo turned the ball over in nearly the exact spot as the earlier throw-in that led to United’s first chance. DeLeon controlled the ball and carried it to midfield before playing a well-timed ball forward to Lionard Pajoy, who beat Houston’s offside trap.
Pajoy closed in on goal and fired a tight-angled shot that caromed off the far post and rolled right in the path of DeLeon. The MLS Rookie of the Year finalist used one touch to fire the rebound into the net after it clipped the leg of defender Andre Hainault.
The Dynamo’s first chance to equalize came in the 37th minute. Macoumba Kandji gathered a loose ball near the corner flag and beat defender Robbie Russell before firing a low shot toward the far post that goalkeeper Joe Willis pushed away with a quick dive to his left.
United had to burn its second of three available substitutions in the 40th minute after Saragosa reinjured his hamstring. He was replaced by 21-year-old Raphael Augusto, who was making his league debut.
Six minutes after halftime, the Dynamo found the vital equalizer. Giles Barnes drew a foul from McDonald just outside the penalty area and the Dynamo took advantage as two United defenders argued the call with the referee and several others walked casually into the box with their back to the ball.
Brad Davis quickly played a short pass to Boniek Garcia, who was unmarked just outside the box. The Honduran took one touch and then surveyed his options in front of goal before spotting Hainault near the back post, behind a group of five players. Garcia threaded the pass to Hainault, who finished into an empty net to tie the game.
The quick free kick was executed perfectly and changed the course of the series after the Dynamo had not generated many goal-scoring threats in the first 50 minutes.
Five minutes after the goal, Olsen was forced to make another change when McDonald aggravated his calf injury. It was just the 56th minute, and United was out of substitutions.
If Hainault’s equalizer only stopped United’s momentum, then a brilliant play from Bobby Boswell 15 minutes later swung the game’s energy firmly in Houston’s favor.
Russell beat Kandji at the end line and sprinted toward the near post before playing a pass to Pajoy, who seemed to have an empty net to fire upon from 12 yards after Hall committed to the near post. Pajoy’s shot was on its way to the net before Boswell headed it clear, with the force of the shot carrying Boswell over the goal line. In simple terms, it was the biggest defensive play of the season.
Then, only 90 seconds after Boswell’s header, the Dynamo took the lead. Corey Ashe lofted a ball from midfield toward the corner for Barnes, who let it roll toward the corner. After drawing in United defender Dejan Jakovic, Barnes produced a brilliant touch to slip past Jakovic down the end line.
Barnes fired across the front of the goal and Willis knocked the ball into the path of Will Bruin, who beat his marker and tapped in from five yards for his fourth goal of the playoffs.
The Dynamo turned their 2-1 lead into a massive 3-1 advantage in the 81st minute. A corner kick from Davis was poorly cleared by D.C., and the ball feel to Kofi Sarkodie just outside the box. The right back played a short ball to Luiz Camargo and then sprinted into the box, where he received a beautifully-chipped return pass from Camargo. Sarkodie took one touch for control near the corner of the six-yard box, then cracked a gorgeous goal into the far side of the net for his first professional goal.
On a day in which depth was tested for both clubs, the Houston fill-ins delivered marvelously. Hainault (starting for Taylor) had a goal, while Barnes (playing in his first career MLS Cup playoff game as a substitute for an injured Adam Moffat) setup Bruin’s goal and Camargo (starting in place of Ricardo Clark) added an assist.
The win extended Houston’s home unbeaten streak to 30 games in all competitions, dating to June 18, 2011. The Dynamo have the best regular season home win percentage in league history and are even better at home in the playoffs, with an 8-1-0 all-time record in home playoff games, outscoring opponents 18-6.
The Dynamo entered the playoffs as the East’s lowest seed, but turned a potential disadvantage of having to play the second leg of each playoff series on the road into an advantage. Spurred by a stadium-record crowd of 22,101, the Dynamo carried a two-goal lead into the second leg on the road. Like the series before, the advantage gained a home was the difference, and the Dynamo reached their fourth MLS Cup in club history.