Watch D.C. United take on the Houston Dynamo in a rematch of the 2012 Eastern Conference Championship Saturday, March 2 at 8:00 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network.
Fresh off its first playoff appearance in five years, D.C. United is starting the 2013 MLS season dealing with a familiar situation. For Saturday’s season opening match in Houston, United will be facing the team that ended its 2012 season again missing a key player.
Team captain and forward Dwayne De Rosario, who also played in Houston where he won two MLS Cups, has been hit with a two-game suspension for what the league called "violent conduct that endangered the safety of his opponent." De Rosario is being penalized for head-butting former teammate Danny Cruz in the preseason finale against Philadelphia
United lost in the Eastern Conference Final to the Dynamo and did not have Andy Najar in either game of the series because of a red card suspension for throwing a ball at a referee in the previous playoff series with New York. Najar has since been transferred to Anderlecht of Belgium.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but we have moved on,” United’ head coach Ben Olsen said of De Rosario’s suspension which will also includes the home opener March 9 against Real Salt Lake.
It’s nothing new for United to deal with adversity. A late season knee injury to De Rosario threatened to spoil United’s return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. De Rosario suffered the knee injury playing for Canada in their unsuccessful bid to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Without De Rosario United rallied to go 5-0-2 over the final seven games of the regular season. De Rosario did not play until the second game of the Eastern Conference Final when he was used as substitute. With De Rosario sidelined United employed a 4-5-1 with Lionard Pajoy as the lone forward and Branko Boskovic at the top of a central midfield triangle in front of Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa.
Boskovic is no longer with United. The former designated player is one of the team’s notable off-season departures and has returned to Austria with Rapid Vienna. Designated player Hamdi Salihi, who never really ignited his scoring touch in MLS, is in China and central defender Emiliano Dudar is now playing in Switzerland.
“Our biggest need this year was depth,” Olsen said. “We had very good depth last year and that was critical in our success. With the loss of Boskovic and Najar, we had to fill those spots.”
Veteran midfielder John Thorington was brought in to the side through the re-entry draft after spending the past two seasons with Vancouver. Thorington, who spent time being developed at Manchester United, has been capped four times by the U.S. national team and might slide into the central midfield role in front of Sargosa and Kitchen if United goes with a 4-5-1 formation on Saturday.
To add to the depth at the forward position United signed Guatemalan international Carlos Ruiz who is ninth on the MLS goal-scoring list with 88 goals in 169 games. In midfield Panamanian international Carlos Sanchez has been added and he usually plays on the right side. At the back United traded drafts pick to acquire MLS veteran defender James Riley from Chivas USA.
On the flanks in the midfield Nick De Leon will be looking to build on his rookie season that included 6 goals and 4 assist in 28 appearances. De Leon also netted the dramatic game winner in the 88th minute of the 1-0 playoff win over New York. On the left side Chris Pontius is back healthy after a groin injury ended his season in the first game of the playoff series with Houston.
Now United is back in Houston. It’s a place where United has never won going 0-8-1 in regular season play. In the playoffs it was a disappointing 3-1 loss and the aforementioned groin injury to Pontius that left the midfielder reduced to tears knowing his season was over. To add to the challenge the Dynamo has yet to lose to any team since BBVA Compass Stadium opened last May.
“It’s a big game for us,” said Pontius. “We have a sour taste in our mouths after what happened last year. It’s no easy task going to Houston and in the new stadium it is especially difficult. Still I like where we are right now and how we are playing.”
The Dynamo will test Pontius’ belief. Several pre-season predictions have Houston as the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Brad Davis is still the central figure for the Dynamo with his impeccable service from the left flank and also in the midfield Oscar Boniek Garcia could be a star in the making in MLS after playing the second half of the season in Houston.
“We hope we are ahead of the curve because of the familiarity we have with each other,” added Olsen. “But I really thought we were organized and committed and that is what got us to where we needed to be.”
United will need that organization and commitment when the journey starts again Saturday in Houston.