WASHINGTON – Dwayne De Rosario sat in front of his locker, a tightly-clustered group of reporters engulfing him, and fought back tears.
D.C. United’s captain, and last season’s league MVP, was a second half substitute in Sunday’s match, marking the first time he played since he sprained his MCL on international duty with Canada in early September.
“Through [my teammates] is why I got back healthy,” De Rosario said, before bowing his head.
But even with De Rosario’s inspirational and technical presence, a raucous sellout crowd at RFK Stadium in full throat and the pervasive belief within that organization that this team could overcome any odds, United’s magic wore off in a 1-1 draw that allowed Houston to advance to the MLS Cup on aggregate goals, 4-2.
“It shows the spirit that this group has,” said United coach Ben Olsen of making it this far. “Things have not been easy. I don’t even know if you guys know the half of it, but these kids kept on pushing through and I’m really proud of them.”
D.C.’s task entering the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship series – maintain a two-goal advantage against Houston to at least force overtime -- would have been difficult enough with a healthy side. But United weren’t healthy. Far from it.
Leading scorer Chris Pontius was bothered by a groin injury that kept him out of the 18. Center back Brandon McDonald was left out of the starting XI and didn’t play. Midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, who wore the captain’s armband, managed to make it through a half. Right back Andy Najar wasn’t hurt, but he was suspended and missed his third consecutive match.
Even during pregame warmups, both goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Lewis Neal went through fitness tests to ensure they’d be effective.
“At some point, it’s just not going to be good enough down the stretch if you have injuries and you’re not playing with your full squad,” Olsen said. “But I’m glad we hung on this long. I really am.”
As if United’s chances to advance weren’t difficult enough considering the injuries, there then was the fact that an inconsistent forward corps needed to aid in the production of at least two goals. In the 10 matches United played without De Rosario, they scored more than twice on just one occasion.
Forwards Lionard Pajoy, Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos all logged minutes Sunday, but it was midfielder Branko Boskovic who scored for D.C.
“It was a game where there were three goals out there, we just weren’t clinical enough in the final third,” Olsen said. “I think we could have made that really interesting down the stretch if we just had a little bit more composure in front of goal.”
Only twice in MLS history have teams advanced when allowing four goals in a series, which made Boniek García’s 33rd minute strike all the more heartbreaking for United, who likely will enter the offseason optimistic about what lies ahead.
“You look at this playoff run and you look at the guys who were injured and out for most of it,” said veteran Robbie Russell. “It bodes well for the future of this team.”