Heading into Sunday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Houston Dynamo (4 ET, NBC Sports Network), D.C. United’s backline will again look drastically different from the one that propelled the club to the Eastern Conference's second seed in September and October.
First-choice right back Andy Najar is unavailable after being suspended by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo in the first leg of United’s semifinal series against New York. First-choice left back Chris Korb is recovering from a hamstring injury and could be a game-time decision. And first-choice goalkeeper Bill Hamid won’t play after he was shown a straight red card in Thursday’s second leg match at Red Bull Arena.
But the back-ups are very well regarded.
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“It’s quality,” center back Brandon McDonald said about his defense’s gritty performance against New York. “Lewis [Neal] is quality in and out. Robbie [Russell], his resume speaks for itself when he was with Salt Lake. I don’t think it was a surprise [that they played well].”
In Wednesday’s match vs. NYRB, Russell played the full 90 at right back and set up Nick DeLeon’s game-winning goal. Neal, who typically plays at left mid, manned the left back spot in Korb’s absence and also drew praise from United head coach Ben Olsen after the game.
“Lewis and Robbie did very, very well,” said United’s 35-year-old coach. “We missed Andy and our two starting outside backs. I think our attack suffered because of that, but I give a bunch of credit to Lewis Neal playing left back. He’s played there probably once in his life and that’s with this team.
“Robbie hasn’t played a first-team game in a while. For him to come in here and do what he did was unbelievable.”
Russell likely will be the choice again at right back, but who starts at left back could also depend on the health and fitness level of Daniel Woolard, who is fully recovered from a concussion he suffered in August.
Back-up goalkeeper Joe Willis hasn’t started a match since July 21, but he was also singled out by his teammates for his penalty kick save against New York’s Kenny Cooper.
“I don’t know how you do that,” United’s leading scorer Chris Pontius said. “I don’t know how you come into a playoff game of that magnitude and keep us in the game."
Nick Cammarota covers D.C. United for MLSsoccer.com