As Eric Alexander’s shot rolled into the back of the net in the 32nd minute on Sunday, the feeling in BBVA Compass Stadium was obvious: “Here we go again.”
For the third time this season, the New York Red Bulls had taken a multi-goal lead on the Houston Dynamo in their own building.
Unlike those previous occasions, however, the Dynamo struck back.
After a rough first half where the Red Bulls dictated, and feasted, on a game that gave way to the counterattacking style in which Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill excel, the Dynamo punched back impressively. Ricardo Clark landed the first blow in the 51st minute and the unlikeliest of heroes, Omar Cummings, brought the Dynamo back to life at the death to score a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“It was a fantastic performance in the second half. The way everything turned out, you feel real positive going into Wednesday,” said assistant coach Wade Barrett, deputizing for the suspended Dominic Kinnear on the day. “We didn’t script it this way….the first half didn’t go as we had planned. We gave up two goals and dug a hole, but it is 135 minutes from halftime [to the close of the two-legged series] and the guys came back with a fantastic attitude and got a goal back right away.”
Houston’s first half was a collection of things that went wrong. After a strong start, the Dynamo allowed New York to sucker them into the game the visitors wanted. Houston struggled to break through the Red Bulls defense and as they pushed forward, they became stretched, opening up the game for Henry, Cahill and their teammates to pounce.
“When we went down 2-0 you had that feeling, ‘It’s not this again,'” said Will Bruin. “It’s happened to us quite a few times this year. It’s uncharacteristic but…we’re much more mentally strong that earlier in the season. We had a talk and said 'Look, it’s not over.’
“We just had the mindset to chip away little by little and it’s a tie ballgame going back to New York.”
In the second half, Houston started pressing in the right areas and stopped the giveaways that New York capitalized on. It was the type of performance the Dynamo expected of themselves and knew they had in them – and playing up a man after Jamison Olave’s reckless tackle drew a 65th-minute red card certainly helped along the way.
As Cummings' injury-time tap-in trickled into the net, the momentum that once resided with the Red Bulls flooded to Houston, and now the proverbial 180-minute game is anyone’s to take.
Just the way the Dynamo hoped it would be after a rough first half.
“You can’t really win the series in the first leg, but I think you can definitely lose it if you give up a ton of goals,” said center back Bobby Boswell. “It was great for the guys to give ourselves a chance heading to New York. We are going to fight to the last whistle. We have to go out and try to hit them where it hurts, at home.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.