If D.C. United can turn belief into goals, then the Black and Red will make it through to their sixth MLS Cup appearance. The home side is confident, but the reality is United is down two goals heading into Sunday's Eastern Conference finale against Houston at R.F.K. Stadium.
It's a total-goal series and the Dynamo is in the lead in its bid to return to MLS Cup for a second consecutive year after a 3-1 win over United last Sunday. The Dynamo entered the post-season as the last seed in the Eastern Conference, but reached this point with a win over Chicago and two-goal victory in game one of its series with Sporting Kansas City.
"We cannot go out and expect to get two goals in the first ten minutes," said United midfielder Perry Kitchen. "We expect them to have a similar approach to when they played K.C. in K.C. with the same sort of scenario. They might sit back and with stand the pressure. We need to be patient; we need to move the ball, still keep the width, and hopefully get chances."
A two-goal cushion was enough to put the Dynamo through to the Eastern Conference finals after a 1-0 loss to Kansas City in the second leg. United will be trying disrupt that pattern by the Dynamo and is hoping the return of Bill Hamid from red card suspension and the availability of Dwyane De Rosario makes a difference.
De Rosario has been sidelined since mid-September with a knee injury suffered in a World Cup qualifier for Canada. Without De Rosario United surprisingly put together a nine-game unbeaten run. It is not clear if De Rosario will start, but his assistance will likely be needed for a team that is also dealing with other injuries.
"It does seem like a game that you might want to use a guy like Dwayne De Rosario, but a lot of things happen in ninety minutes of soccer," said United head coach Ben Olsen. "You prepare in certain ways and you have to be ready to adapt. Dwayne is pretty gutsy and he can find through more than your average player from my experience with him."
"We just have to get one first," added De Rosario, who sounded ready to have his number called. "We know we have to score multiple goals, but we have to get one first. If we get that first goal with the fans and playing at home everything else will follow with the momentum. We have to get that first one and of course we canít concede."
Certainly De Rosario, who won two MLS Cups with Houston, would be a welcome addition to United's team sheet. Chris Pontius, Brandon McDonald and Marcelo Saragosa all failed to finish the first game in Houston because of injuries. Olsen called the groin injury to Pontius the most severe of his ailing players, but did not rule him out for Sunday.
Despite the injuries and two-goal deficit, United remains convinced it still has enough to earn a chance to host MLS Cup 2012. Recent history probably helps United believe with players like Lewis Neal, Branko Boskovic, and Hamdi Salihi all playing a part in decisive moments in allowing United to grab points and second place in the Eastern Conference.
"We have adequate backups and we know that everyone of us will be ready to step up regardless of who is in there," said Hamid. "Throughout the season we have had to lean on every single player in this locker room. We know anyone can go out there, stay tuned in and perform and get the job done."
Houston was on its heels in the first leg after a goal from United rookie Nick De Leon. The game then slowly unraveled for United after a no-call on a now much debated challenge by the Dynamo's Andre Hainault. Regardless of the call, the Dynamo showed its quality and playoff pedigree with three second-half goals.
"We can't be silly in particular on set pieces where they have shown they are pretty darn good at," said Olsen. "Of course we have to make things happen, but that's what we do at home. We know we have to be aggressive and go after them, but we have to be patient. It is that fine balance."
While the Dynamo has the most important factor, the score line, in its favor, United is looking forward to playing at home. The Black and Red worked hard to earn the home field advantage, although Hurricane Sandy forced them to surrender it in the New York series. Now United is hoping the wider field, Houston's field was only 115x70, and passionate fan base will make a difference.
"Every home game we come out and put our stamp on the game as early as possible," Hamid said. "If we do that then maybe the game opens up and we take advantages of some chances. If we take advantage of our chances and tuck those away, then we can definitely make our mark on this game."
United fans are counting on that and there is really no other option.