How They Got Here
Entering the post-season as the fifth and final seed in the East, Houston showed why they should never be underestimated once the leaves begin to change.
They overpowered Chicago in the wildcard play-in match, winning 1-2 on the road via the strength of a Will Bruin brace: his first, a near-post header from a Brad Davis corner kick, capitalizing on a slip from defender Jalil Anibaba and his second, just nineteen seconds into the second frame, latching onto a diagonal ball from strike partner Calen Carr for a low finish across the keeper.
Alex drew one back for the Fire in the final ten minutes, but the Dynamo had their stranglehold on the result.
Houston, now into the play-offs proper, the Eastern Conference Semifinal, took on high-flying conference winners Sporting KC in a rematch of last season's conference final.
A strong 2-0 win at home - another Adam Moffat blast from distance and another goal from Bruin off a Carr cut-back - proved insurmountable, when followed by a stifling defensive performance that limited to Sporting to a mere four shots on target (five in the whole series) and a single Seth Sinovic-diving-header-at-the-back-post of a goal to advance past Sporting, 2-1 aggregate.
The second seed in the East took part in a dramatic, weather-afflicted series against third-placed New York. Cursed it was.
First, the home dates were switched to circumvent Hurricane Sandy, and then the second leg was postponed as an early season nor'easter brought snow and winds to the already stressed environs.
A 1-1 draw in DC - the first MLS playoff match to feature two own goals; New York's Luis Robles became the first keeper to save a penalty kick in the playoffs since 2006; Chris Pontius the first player to miss a penalty kick since '06 - Dwayne De Rosario was the last for Houston versus Chivas.
Andy Najar's moment of madness saw him pick up a second yellow, subsequent red, and further punishment for launching the ball - in a rather unfriendly manner - towards the referee following a run-of-the-mill obstruction booking. Roy Miller's own goal, a piece of comic genius, slicing his attempted clearance of a Perry Kitchen cross past Robles, an act that was only surpassed in awkward hilarity by Bill Hamid's tragic mishandling of a Heath Pearce header from a Thierry Henry corner kick. Hamid, under the power of a slight nudge from Marcus Holgersson, managed to collect the ball only to fall back into his net, carrying the ball over the line in the process; this series had it all.
And that was just the first leg.
The second came unraveled after seventy tight minutes of action. A red card to Hamid for tripping up Kenny Cooper in the box, Hamid vociferously protesting it was a dive, both on the pitch and soon after on twitter, rather smartly directing his disdain at commentator 'Kyle Martini' rather than the ref. The penalty, scored by the victim, but waived off for encroachment by Henry and Tim Cahill was saved on the retake by Joe Willis, in his first action since July; Rafa Marquez was dismissed for a thoughtless second yellow shortly thereafter negating the man advantage, and Nick DeLeon found what proved to be the game-winner in the final two minutes of play, collecting a deft pass from Robbie Russell and slotting past Robles.
Adding to the drama, a dangerous last-minute free kick from just outside box was taken not by the experienced Frenchman, Henry, who lined up prepared to pounce but by that tragi-comic hero, Miller; but why?
With the unbalanced schedule the two sides have already met three times this season.
April 28th - 3-2 DC United - their only meeting in the American capital
United took an early lead through a Maicon Santos header. A hectic nine-minute span in the second half saw Bruin equalize, only for De Rosario to respond before Bruin re-equalized. Santos then finished off the night with another header.
May 12th - 1-0 Houston - the opening match at BBVA Compass Stadium.
A hot day at the grand opening of Houston's shiny new orange ground was decided by a lone long-range blast from Brad Davis, who was given too much space to line up a left-footer from some thirty yards.
July 15th - 4-0 Houston
Intriguingly, Hamid saw red and conceded a penalty for a trip on Macoumba Kandji in the box - a near identical play to the one that saw him ejected in New York - and DC crumbled under the pressure. Davis converted the penalty, Bruin added another, Oscar Boniek Garcia scored his first in MLS, and Brian Ching capped the offensive explosion with another penalty kick after Danny Cruz cut down Carr in the box.
Dominic Kinnear vs. Ben Olsen
Savvy old pro meets wily newcomer. Olsen has many an exciting young player under his charge, while Kinnear has a variety of more experienced vets at his disposal. Will DC's youthful exuberance wear off? Will they be out dueled by the veteran guile of a team that has been there and done that? Ching has been quiet this post-season, but he will likely have a role to play in these matches.
Will Bruin vs. Joe Willis
Bruin has six goals in five career matches against DC United and three already in this post-season. Willis has made eleven appearances this season, including a run of nine straight at the beginning of the season with Hamid away with the Olympic Qualifying side and attending to the subsequent injury he picked up on international duty. Curiously enough, Houston was one of the teams he faced during that stretch - the 3-2 win at RFK.
Midfield vs. Midfield
The battle for control in the middle of the park will be paramount to this series. Houston's return to the tried and tested 4-4-2 after dabbling with the 4-3-3 features two combative players in the middle of the park - Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark. DC switched to a 4-2-3-1 towards the end of the season and the central pairing of Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa may have an extra man on their side, but will struggle to provide service to Pontius and DeLeon while keeping the likes of Davis and Garcia under wraps.
B Mac vs. B Davis
Order at the back against the delivery from set-pieces; Houston dominates from set plays and Brandon MacDonald will have to rely on his midfield to limit the chances while organizing his fellow defenders when those opportunities do come.
De Rosario vs. Injury & History
Intriguingly, De Rosario was quietly listed on the injury report as probable, having enjoyed a speedy recovery from the knee knock suffered while on duty with Canada.
He was not on the bench for the New York match, but dare they risk such an early return?
If he does, he will be taking the pitch against the team with whom he enjoyed so much success and two MLS Cups from 2006 to 2008.
Points of Order
DC United will be without goalkeeper Hamid for the first leg and without right-back Najar for both, due to suspension.
Home from will clearly be an important factor in this series, whoever can survive the rivals ground with the least bit of damage will likely be moving on. Houston is unbeaten in twenty-seven matches at home having gone the entire season without a loss at BBVA Compass, while DC are unbeaten in seventeen at RFK, their last loss coming on opening day to KC.
Adding to that importance is that DC is woeful at Houston; they've never won, have lost eight matches, and drawn a single fixture all-time.
Houston will also have an extra day of rest due to the postponement.
The two have combined for six MLS Cups; Houston have won three of the four Conference Finals they have played including last year's, while DC last reached this stage back in 2006 when they lost to New England.
The preview of the Western Conference Final is in the works and will be up by Sunday morning at the latest.