Over the course of nearly 10 months, D.C. United's winding path from playoff outsider to MLS Cup contender has taken the club through a grueling 34-game regular season and a trio of hectic postseason contests.
It was in late January that United began that road with preseason training on a bitter cold morning in Arlington. At RFK Stadium on Sunday, everything the team has fought for from that point will be on the line.
Separating United from hosting MLS Cup and playing for their first league title since 2004? The Houston Dynamo and a two-goal disadvantage.
"It's a tough task, but it's also a doable task," midfielder Perry Kitchen said. "We've just been reiterating that."
After dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final 3-1 at Houston this past Sunday, second-seeded United will host the No. 5 Dynamo for the decisive second leg in the two-game, total-goals series. If the teams end up deadlocked on aggregate, two 15-minute overtime periods and, if necessary, penalty kicks will be employed to determine the winner.
Although United must cope with a built-in deficit, don't expect the home side to throw caution to the wind.
"We know we have to be aggressive, we know we have to go after them," coach Ben Olsen said. "But we also have to be patient. So it's that fine balance, just like they're not going to want to just sit back. They're going to want to attack as well. It's a little bit of a chess match in that sense."
It's one Houston knows well. In its conference semifinal series, the club won the first leg 2-0 over top-seeded Sporting Kansas City before advancing with a 1-0 loss on the road in Game 2.
As several United players pointed out, they won't unlock Houston's disciplined back line simply by pumping balls into the box and hoping to cash in with a barrage of half-chances. The key will be to win the battles in midfield, keep the ball moving side to side and exhaust the Dynamo — physically and mentally.
"To be successful, we need to wear this team down, and the way we're going to do that is by possessing the ball," winger Nick DeLeon said. "If we can do that over long periods of time, they're going to get tired from having to chase back and forth, and that's when gaps open up. That's when we go at them. It's just about being patient."
For United, injuries are perhaps the team's biggest concern. While Olsen has been upbeat on the prospects of defender Brandon McDonald (calf) and midfielder Marcelo Saragosa (knee), the status of All-Star midfielder-forward Chris Pontius (groin) is up in the air.
The ultimate wild card, however, is reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario, who is poised to see his first minutes since suffering a sprained knee ligament in mid-September. Even though the injury generally was considered to be season-ending, the combination of United's deep playoff run and his ahead-of-schedule comeback has made the playmaker a factor once more.
"We're not sure exactly how many minutes he has in him, but he certainly can score and change games," Olsen said. "Dwayne's pretty gutsy, and he can fight through more than your average player, from my experience with him. So if we're in a spot where we need to get a goal late, I wouldn't hesitate to use him."
Even without De Rosario, 90 minutes is plenty of time to bag a pair of goals, especially for a team that compiled the best home record in MLS (12-1-5). When considering the Dynamo were woeful on the road (3-9-5) this season, the circumstances seem even less dire.
"This is far from over," center back Dejan Jakovic said. "We're going to be playing in front of our fans, and we know that we've been playing well at home and they've been struggling away. Everyone is excited."
NOTE: MLS on Thursday announced the shortlists for its 2012 awards. DeLeon (Rookie of the Year), Pontius (Comeback Player of the Year) and Olsen (Coach of the Year) are finalists.
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