HOUSTON — The MLS playoffs have been full of twists and turns for D.C. United. After a poor second-half performance against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday, the club will have to find yet another memorable moment if it wants to play for this year's championship.
United led at the break but surrendered three second-half goals in a 3-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final. The Dynamo were paced by goals from Andre Hainault, Will Bruin and Kofi Sarkodie, while United's tally came courtesy of rookie Nick DeLeon.
United must make up the two-goal difference in the second leg Sunday at RFK Stadium. The team with the most aggregate goals will advance to the MLS Cup on Dec. 1.
The playoffs for United already had featured a postponed game, a relocated game, two own goals, two saved penalty kicks, three ejections and a last-moment winning goal.
The first half Sunday must have felt like more of the same for United.
Captain and team MVP Chris Pontius left the game in the 12th minute with a left groin strain. Later in the half, coach Ben Olsen sent Raphael Augusto into the game as a substitute. It was Augusto's MLS debut.
Just before halftime, United coaches became irate with officials who did not call a foul — potentially a red card — on Hainault when the defender grabbed Augusto and pulled him to the ground.
United used their final sub in the 56th minute when Brandon McDonald suffered a strained right calf. D.C. played its third game in eight days Sunday, with this one coming after only two days off.
"The league in the future should look at the schedule a little bit," Olsen said. "We've got guys going down left and right. It's not an excuse, but at some point it's about survival. We're just surviving to get through this game somehow. I've got guys cramping, and half of them are about to pull a muscle."
As rough as United seemed to have it in the first half, they still went to the locker room with the lead. The goal came in the 27th minute when Lionard Pajoy's far-post shot rebounded off the inside of the post and rolled to DeLeon at the top of the penalty area. DeLeon, who scored in D.C.'s 1-0 win at New York on Thursday, finished from there.
The Dynamo tied it early in the second half when they caught United sleeping on a free kick. Brad Davis played early to Oscar Boniek Garcia, who crossed to the face of goal. The Dynamo's Macoumba Kandji missed on his attempt, but the ball went directly to Hainault, who finished into the open net.
"We were prepared for [the Dynamo playing early on free kicks]," Olsen said. "We turned off and that was a big goal to give them momentum. Up until that point, our game plan was good and everything was OK. Then things started to unravel physically."
Bruin, who has notched seven goals in six career games against United, scored the winner in the 68th minute when he knocked home a rebound off goalkeeper Joe Willis. Sarkodie scored the Dynamo's third goal in the 81st minute.
The six days of rest and a home game might be the most welcome situation for United at this point, considering all that has happened over the past two weeks.
"Obviously we're not happy about it, but that's why we play two legs," Willis said. "Luckily next week we'll be at home, so I think we'll be fine. I don't think the injuries are too serious, and hopefully they can recover this week and be back next weekend."