WASHINGTON – Throughout the duration of D.C. United’s nine-match unbeaten streak, which was snapped last Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against Houston, United coach Ben Olsen couldn’t miss.
Every late-game substitution he made seemed to contribute in a positive way, whether it was a game-winning goal or a calming presence.
Olsen’s tactical task Sunday at RFK Stadium in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship (4 pm ET; NBC Sports Network, LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com) promises to be far more difficult, however, as the injury status of multiple first-choice players remains uncertain.
Throw in the fact that United need to score at least two goals to force overtime, and Olsen’s decision-making predicament isn’t an enviable one.
“You have to go into this game thinking [you’re playing] 120 minutes, being down two goals,” Olsen said Friday after training. “I think we’d be very pleased if we went into overtime. You have to have a majority of your guys ready to go for that duration. If you make too many subs early, it could affect what you need to do down the stretch. That’s all stuff that’s playing out and we’re figuring out.”
Leading scorer Chris Pontius remains the biggest question mark among United’s recovering starters after he was lifted in the 12th minute of the first leg with a groin injury.
“He’s definitely injured,” Olsen said of Pontius. “We’ve got to see where he’s at and be very smart because we definitely can’t afford to pull anybody out early in this game. We’ll just keep evaluating everybody.”
Replacing Pontius, if he can’t play, likely also depends on the health of midfielder Marcelo Saragosa and center back Brandon McDonald. Lewis Neal has been a solid replacement in both the midfield and on the backline at times this year, but in need of more offensive firepower Olsen also could turn to Maicon Santos or Hamdi Salihi up top.
If both Pontius and Saragosa are unavailable, Olsen might have to turn to inexperienced midfielder Raphael Augusto, who made his MLS debut in the first leg.
“He’s very calm on the ball, even for his first game,” Olsen said. “I though he did pretty well for us I thought he held up pretty well. If it’s a game where we need possession, a little bit more East-West type play, he’s a guy that can really help us.”
A big part of the equation, of course, is that Dwayne De Rosario has looked very solid in training this week.
“He’s healthy and ready to go,” Olsen said of the 2011 MLS MVP. “It does seem like a game that you might want to use a guy like Dwayne De Rosario, but again, a lot of things happen in 90 minutes of soccer. You can prepare certain ways, but you have to be ready to adapt.”
McDonald, who played the most minutes on the team this year, was back at training Friday for the first time since he left the match against Houston after feeling “a pop” in his calf.
“For me, it’s about the team. I don’t want to be selfish,” he said. “Right now, the way I feel, I could go out there and play. But I don’t want it to be another Houston thing where I’m going out there and playing 50 minutes and then having to waste a sub.”
Whoever ends up stepping on the pitch Sunday afternoon, D.C.’s players are confident they can complete the comeback.
“Every one of us will be ready to step up, regardless of who’s in there,” said United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who was suspended for the first leg. “Throughout the season, we’ve been able to lean on every player in the locker room.”