For D.C. United to advance to the MLS Cup Championship, they're going to need someone -or likely a committee- to step up and play hero.
It won't be enough for DCU to simply win on Sunday. In order to fend off elimination, the Black and Red must beat Houston by two or more goals through 90. It's a feat they've accomplished seven times this season, and they'll have the advantage of making a go at eight on their home turf: a place where they haven't lost since Mar. 10.
But unfortunately for D.C., the usual suspects aren't 100 percent, and may not even be in the lineup on Sunday. Chris Pontius (groin) and Dwayne De Rosario (knee) have contributed 66 percent of United's offense this season. De Rosario has not played a match since Sept. 11 and Pontius was forced to pull himself out of Sunday's match in Houston after just 12 minutes of play.
The jury is still out on either captain's return. De Rosario, listed as probable in the MLS Injury Report, has practiced regularly with the team for over a week now and teammates and coaches are hopeful about what they've seen. Pontius returned to the pitch Thursday to participate in some drills but is listed as questionable in the latest injury report.
Houston, however, isn't taking any chances.
"We know they're going to play everybody that they can," said Dynamo forward Will Bruin. "They're trying to get guys back from injury as soon as possible, so we're expecting everybody to play. We're going to prepare as that [Pontius and De Rosario] are going to be in the lineup."
Bruin also said that his club is expecting an offensive onslaught from a hungry and desperate United.
But who will lead the charge?
Nick DeLeon has come up huge in each of United's three playoff games thus far. You can credit the rookie midfielder with each of D.C.'s three postseason goals, all of them a result of some great, and somewhat lucky, positioning. In order to generate enough offense on Sunday, the Black and Red will not only need DeLeon to maintain his hot streak, they'll need some of that luck to rub off on forward Leonard Pajoy as well.
Pajoy, DCU's designated man up top, has yet to score in the postseason and did so just three times through 12 matches after joining the club in August. The forward's ability to put his strikes on target has increased almost 100 percent in the playoffs, but that still leaves Pajoy with just one shot on goal in each of the last three games. He'll need a faster and more accurate trigger for United to survive the first 90 on Sunday.
"All year people have stepped up when we've needed them to," said DeLeon. "Someone who hasn't done anything special in one game, the next they're scoring the game-winning goal."
DeLeon falls into that category, as does Lewis Neal whose two goals this season were both game-winners scored just moments after being subbed on late in a game. In an ideal situation, Olsen would have full access to his arsenal on Sunday, but the team has shown that it is deep enough to get production from both the starters and backups. After De Rosario's injury, the club went unbeaten in the remaining seven games of the regular season. Their first, and only loss since losing the 2011 MLS MVP was last Sunday.
As Perry Kitchen knows, however, Game 2 won't just be about offense.
"We're going to be patient," the DCU defender explained. "The last thing we want to do is be sloppy and give up a goal, which is kind of the knife to the chest. We just have to be smart and execute the plan that we have."
In other words, heros won't just be needed up front, D.C. will also need one in net, where things look significantly better for the Black and Red. Bill Hamid will return from his mandatory one-game suspension. The keeper has a perfect save percentage this postseason, albeit he did commit an own goal and red card penalty in the New York series.
Though Bruin insisted that his club will look at Sunday's match as a must-win, Hamid won't likely be tested too much. Given the dire straights on the offensive side of the ball, however, and injuries forcing reshuffling in the backline, when shots are fired, Hamid must be heroic in order to keep United's hopes alive.
The odds are certainly against them, but United has already shown their ability to overcome adversity this season.