It wasn't supposed to get to this point. D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen admitted as much.
"The first leg didn’t go according to plan," Kitchen said on a conference call Thursday.
The plan, as it has been for the past two months while the team has been playing without 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, was to keep the game in Houston close and low scoring.
For a while it was working out, but an onslaught of three Dynamo goals in the second half put United in an uncomfortable situation. Down 3-1 and heading home for the second leg of the Eastern Conference final, United needs to attack.
"We can’t sit back. We have to be the aggressor. If we sit back, that plays into their hands, so we have to get after them," Kitchen said.
De Rosario went down in mid-September with United barely holding onto a playoff spot. Remarkably, without its captain, D.C. rattled off a 6-0-3 run, making the playoffs with ease and getting past New York to reach the conference final. Sunday's loss in Houston was United's first since De Rosario's injury.
However, the team has found success without its talisman by winning ugly. Switching to a 4-5-1 formation and employing two defensive midfielders in Marcelo Saragosa and Kitchen, United has scored two or more goals only twice in its last 10 games, and all six of its wins during the unbeaten run were by a one-goal margin.
So with at least a two-goal win required Sunday at RFK Stadium, will D.C. be forced to change its style? It doesn't sound likely, at least initially.
"We don’t have to go out and get two goals in the first 10 minutes, so there is an amount of patience that plays into that," Kitchen said. "The last thing we want to do is be sloppy and give them a fourth goal which could be like a knife to the chest. We have to be smart and execute the plan that we have."
If United doesn't score in the early going, expect the game to open up, as Houston isn't expecting to sit back too much either.
"We’re going into the game thinking it’s 0-0, that it’s a must win for us," Dynamo forward Will Bruin said on the conference call.
"We’re going to keep attacking and try to create our own chances. That being said, we have to be smart and not get caught with too many numbers forward where they can hit us with a counter."
There might be one more reason Sunday's game will be an attacking affair: The possible return of De Rosario, who is listed as "probable" on the team's injury report.
"He’s looked good. He definitely doesn’t look like he’s been out for as long as he has been," Kitchen said. "He’s been sharp, he’s back directing traffic and leading the guys. If he is healthy I definitely think he’ll play a part in the game."
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