D.C. United were on the road and without five starters after Chris Pontius and Marcelo Saragosa left with injuries, joining Dwayne De Rosario, Andy Najar and Bill Hamid on the sidelines, yet they were still leading 1-0 at halftime in the first leg of their Eastern Conference final against the Houston Dynamo. The second half proved to be a whole other animal, though, as the Dynamo took complete control to win 3-1 and send the tie to the second leg in D.C. with a two-goal advantage.
Pontius went off with a groin injury after just 12 minutes and it seemed likely that D.C. would go conservative from that point on to play for a draw. With the second leg at home, a draw would have served them just fine, but they played aggressive even without all of their most potent attackers and it paid off in the 27th minute.
The Houston defense was uncharacteristically unorganized and Lionard Pajoy took advantage when he was able to slip in behind the back line. He cut in from the left and picked out the back post, but he was actually too precise, hitting the bar. It turned out just fine, though, because the ball bounced to Nick DeLeon, who hit the ball first time. The ball deflected off of Andre Hainault and found the net to put D.C. surprisingly in front.
Even up a goal D.C. kept attacking and they had several more chances to add to their lead, including a seemingly sure goal that was cleared off the line by Bobby Boswell. They also could have gone up a man thanks to their aggressiveness when Raphael Augosto broke free just before halftime only to be dragged down by Hainault, but the referee missed what was a clear foul and possible red card, instead waving play on.
That Hainault was allowed to stay on proved huge just six minutes after the break when he got the home side level. Houston took a quick throw-in on the left and caught D.C. not watching the ball. Boniek Garcia sprinted down the left and fed Hainault, who was unmarked in front and finished to get things level.
Once they equalized, the Dynamo took complete control of the match. Dominic Kinnear pushed Garcia up on the right, where he caused problems in space, and Macoumba Kandji was on the left, terrorizing the United left. Even without the injured Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat, Houston did well to control the middle too, pushing D.C. back for much of the second half.
It was that left side that was especially welcoming to Houston and it gave them their second goal in the 68th minute. Giles Barnes got the ball isolated against Robbie Russell and completely skinned him, rushing down the end line before crossing. Joe Willis reached out and got a hand to Barnes' cross, but that only put the ball on Will Bruin's foot and the Dynamo striker bundled it across the line for the go-ahead goal.
Kofi Sarkodie finished things off with the all-important third goal in the 81st minute. D.C. allowed a corner kick to make it all the way across to Sarkodie, who was at the top of the box on the other side of the field. The fullback then fed Luiz Carmargo, who played it right back to a sprinting Sarkodie. With room to shoot, Sarkodie didn't even hesitate despite a sharp angle and ripped a shot at the back post to complete a tremendous Dynamo second half that sends them to D.C. two goals up.
Houston is just 90 minutes away from a second consecutive trip to the MLS Cup final and is playing a beat up D.C. squad that will need to get some players healthy if they want to have a chance at a comeback. The second leg is next Sunday at 4 p.m. ET in Washington, D.C.