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D.C. United look to extend improbable playoff run
HARRISON, N.J. — Bill Hamid didn't have much interest in talking. Shouting, however, was a different matter. When it came to his club, and the intangibles that have fueled its logic-defying run to the MLS final four, the D.C. United goalkeeper's passion spoke volumes — figuratively and literally.
"I have five words: They can't hold us back," Hamid yelled Thursday over the celebratory music pumping through the visitors' locker room. "That is it. They can't hold us back. That's all I've got to say. Thank you very much. Eastern Conference finals. We did it as a team — together, with character."
There's no arguing that. With a 1-0 win against the New York Red Bulls, United clinched a 2-1 aggregate triumph in the two-game, total-goals series, securing passage to a conference final date with the Houston Dynamo.
Game 1 will be Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, where the Dynamo have yet to lose since they opened the venue with a 1-0 win over D.C. in May. As the higher seed, No. 2 United will then host the fifth-place Dynamo at RFK Stadium in the second leg Nov. 18.
With the win, United improved to 6-0-3 since reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario went down in mid-September with a sprained knee ligament. When the injury occurred, D.C. was a fading club on the outside looking in at a playoff berth.
Now, only Houston stands between United and hosting the MLS Cup.
"It's not like we were schlubs during the year," United president Kevin Payne said. "But the way we've come together is pretty special, and these guys really care about each other."
The series against New York threw plenty of obstacles in United's path. First, D.C. sacrificed home-field advantage when it agreed to swap home playoff dates with the Red Bulls in hopes of giving New York more time to prepare following Superstorm Sandy.
Then, Wednesday's match was postponed after an hourlong delay as a nor'easter dumped more snow on the Red Bull Arena field than the grounds crew could shovel. While New York coach Hans Backe said it was an "easy decision" to postpone, D.C. boss Ben Olsen complained he was "baffled" by it.
It was obvious then that United were ready to play. But the postponement to Thursday didn't throw them askew.
"This has been a long week and a half," Olsen said. "This series just seemed like it was such a grueling time period for us. There was so much going on."
For a team that has had myriad role players step up in De Rosario's absence, it came as no surprise when Thursday introduced two more unlikely heroes to the squad's script for success.
Veteran right back Robbie Russell, who hadn't started a game since July 15, assisted Nick DeLeon's 88th-minute winner. And after not seeing a minute of action since July 21, backup goalkeeper Joe Willis came off the bench following Hamid's 71st-minute red card to deny Kenny Cooper's penalty kick.
"This team has guys who produce from every rank and file," Russell said. "Guys off the bench, guys who weren't even on the [gameday roster] last week — it's unbelievable."
If United can get past the Dynamo, RFK Stadium will host the MLS Cup on Dec. 1. After using a neutral site for the league's first 16 seasons, MLS this year granted home-field advantage in the final to the team with the superior regular-season record.
At 17-10-7, United boast a better mark than the remaining Western Conference sides, the Seattle Sounders and the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy.
But there still is plenty of work to be done before United can think of such things.
"The emotions are running high here — everyone's very excited," midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said amid the postgame joviality. "We'll enjoy it tonight, and then everything has got to be focused on Houston."
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