United knew the challenge was formidable: win by three or more goals in order to advance. They also knew they’d need to so without the aid of their leading goal-scorer, Chris Pontius, and a bruised up backline that dearly missed the services of Brandon McDonald.
Unfortunately, the task would prove too difficult for the Black and Red and instead of advancing to their first MLS Cup Final since 2004, the Houston Dynamo will make their second consecutive appearance.
"It’s a lot to ask but we worked our tails off," said DCU defender Perry Kitchen. "We had our chances and it just wasn’t meant to be."
Despite controlling possession and outshooting the Dynamo six shots to three in the first half, United failed to produce on offense and allowed Houston to deliver the final dagger in the 33rd minute.
Driving to the DCU net, Brad Davis escaped Dejan Jakovic’s slide tackle and chipped one into the box for Boniek Garcia to blast by Bill Hamid. The goal put Houston up 1-0 and United into a three-goal hole.
"We talked about keeping [Houston at] zero," said United coach Ben Olsen. "As much this game was about offense and us having to score a bunch of goals, it was also about keeping them off the board."
"We all still believed. It was still doable," said Hamid. "We sure had enough chances to get back in the game even after the goal that we let in. It’s unfortunate. We played our hearts out and never gave up."
In the second half, Dwayne De Rosario returned to the pitch for United for the first time since suffering a grade 3 MCL injury in early September.
"At that point we’re throwing the kitchen sink and trying to get some looks –and we did, said Olsen. "I think we could have made it a bit more interesting down the stretch if we’d had a little bit more composure in front of goal."
As D.C. United’s patched-up roster continued to press, sending 13 shots to the Houston net, five on target, they did so to the detriment of their defense. United allowed several breakaways on the counter attack in the second half, forcing Hamid to make more saves than the keeper, returning after his one-game red card suspension, would have liked.
Though the Black and Red were able to work De Rosario back into their lineup, defensive authority Brandon McDonald and lead goal-scorer Pontius were unable to return for the deciding match. Though Pontius had been listed as questionable with a groin strain, Olsen admitted after the match that there was no chance of seeing the captain back on the pitch.
"At some point it’s just not going to be good enough down the stretch if you have injuries and you’re not playing with your full squad," said Olsen. "But I’m glad we hung on this long."
Luckily for United, they would not permit another Houston goal, and were finally able to produce one of their own late in the half as Branko Bokovic notched the equalizer. Unfortunately though, DCU could not undo the 3-goal deficit and their long-awaited playoff run came to an end Sunday night.
For United it was a bitter ending to an otherwise benchmark season, which included an 19-game unbeaten streak at home and their first playoff berth in five years.
"I think we can look back and say we had a hell of a year," said Kitchen. "It was unbelievable at times so we should keep our heads high and be proud of everything we’ve done.
"It’s definitely bittersweet because we wanted to win this whole thing, that’s the goal for every team. It’s been a tough year. Nothing’s been handed to us. We’ve had to fight for everything. We’ve battled through injuries and have always found a way. We just fell short this series but we know we’ll be back for years to come and I think this is a great stepping stone to get this club back to where it’s used to being."