One by one, the players dropped to the turf, physically and emotionally spent. For D.C. United this season, there will be no getting up.
No completion of United's unlikely two-month path to the verge of a title game. No lifting of the conference trophy in front of their home fans. No MLS Cup in the nation's capital.
The barriers, as it turned out, were too many. The two-goal deficit United brought into Sunday's second leg of the Eastern Conference final was the primary culprit. D.C. starting the match without its key playmaker, most prolific scorer and top defender stacked the odds even further in the visitors' favor.
With a 1-1 draw, the fifth-seeded Houston Dynamo eliminated No. 2 United on a 4-2 aggregate in the two match, total-goals series, securing the conference crown for the second straight year.
In doing so, Houston ended a D.C. run that saw the club go 5-0-2 down the stretch and oust New York in the conference semifinals despite captain Dwayne De Rosario going down with a mid-September knee injury.
"I'm glad we hung on this long," coach Ben Olsen said. "There has been obstacle after obstacle, and these kids just kept on pushing through."
Using an elaborate pregame display, the standing-room-only crowd of 20,015 adopted the rallying cry of perseverance coined by goalkeeper Bill Hamid, raising banners that declared, "They can't hold us back — we are United."
But Oscar Boniek Garcia's first-half tally deflated their enthusiasm, as did the defensive fortitude of a Houston team that simply gets the job done when November rolls around.
Although Branko Boskovic cut the aggregate deficit in the game's dying stages, it was too little, too late. Even the return of De Rosario, who played 28 minutes off the bench for his first action since spraining a knee ligament, couldn't lift United.
"We played our hearts out and never gave up to the last minute," Hamid said. "It's unfortunate."
This second leg always was going to be a tall task for United. With leading scorer Chris Pontius sidelined by a groin strain, Olsen rolled the dice, starting Maicon Santos in the striker's first minutes of the playoffs. And journeyman Emiliano Dudar made his first start since Sept. 1, stepping in for defensive stalwart Brandon McDonald (calf).
Punishing their short-handed opposition, the Dynamo grabbed the backbreaking goal in the 34th minute. Beating Dejan Jakovic down the right flank, Brad Davis danced along the end line before touching a pass for Garcia to smash into the roof of the net.
"In a game like that where you need goals, you're going to have to not make any mistakes on the defensive end," Olsen said. "We fouled that one up."
As the second half unfolded, the match opened up. United threw numbers forward, and Houston seemed content to hunker down and look for counterattacks. By inserting De Rosario for Dudar, Olsen abandoned caution.
While D.C. created chance after chance, the home side took too long to capitalize. Robbie Russell's point-blank effort skied over. Tally Hall stoned Hamdi Salihi's breakaway. Santos headed a shot just wide.
"The whole second half, we were in their end," Russell said. "We had the chances to win it. We just couldn't put it away. I guess the soccer gods weren't smiling on us today."
In the 83rd minute, Boskovic jolted the RFK crowd, capping a give-and-go with Santos by evading a tackle and slotting his shot inside the near post.
The spurt of optimism, however, was just a consolation prize. Minutes later, the Dynamo were celebrating amid a sea of bright-orange confetti.
In the locker room postgame, De Rosario's face said it all. As he stared forward, blankly, his words were faint.
"The guys really got together and pulled together as a strong unit and brought me back," De Rosario said, battling through tears before taking a long pause to collect himself and finishing, "But you know, it is what it is. And we have to plan for next year."
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