Since 2006, no city has been more unfriendly to D.C. United than Houston, where the Dynamo beaten United in eleven of the Black-and-Red's twelve visits. There have been blowouts, farcical last-minute goals, and horrendous calls in playoff games. Today, however, was different. Today, with a chance to get within a point of winning the Eastern Conference outright, United stood firm and were deserved 3-1 victors in a game delayed over an hour by lightning. Taylor Kemp, Fabian Espindola, and Eddie Johnson provided the goals, while Bill Hamid came up with a couple strong stops to make sure the Dynamo didn't steal a point.
The early stages did not indicate a particularly strong outing for the visitors. Houston exerted the early pressure and created the game's first real chance in the 7th minute. Giles Barnes was given time to cross before finding Andrew Driver at the back post. The Scottish winger couldn't turn his volley on goal, which instead trickled across the goalmouth. With Hamid's foot tangled in the net, the ball found Omar Cummings at the opposite post with the goal wide open. A heavy touch by the Jamaican allowed Steve Birnbaum to arrive and prevent a shot; Cummings tried to find the onrushing Barnes for a tap-in, but Sean Franklin won the footrace to clear from inside the six.
After DaMarcus Beasley was forced out in the 11th minute with an apparent hamstring strain, United started to turn the tables just as the clouds opened up to produce a downpour. Tyler Deric came off his line to clear a dangerous through ball from Davy Arnaud, just barely beating Espindola to the ball in the 16th minute. Moments later, a Luis Silva corner found Birnbaum, but the rookie opted to stoop for a header and couldn't direct the ball anywhere but wide.
In the 21st minute, another Silva corner kick found Arnaud wide open at the back post, but the veteran midfielder directed his header wide. Arnaud was perhaps unsighted by the flailing arm of Cummings, but he put his head in his hands knowing a good opportunity had been wasted.
That was virtually the final action before referee Ismail Elfath sent both teams to the locker rooms due to lightning in the area for what turned out to be a delay of roughly 70 minutes. Thankfully, the end of the lightning also meant the end of the heaviest of the rain, as the conditions were contributing to a sloppy affair in terms of passing.
Thankfully, the delay didn't dampen United's momentum. Espindola missed on a header from a Franklin cross in the 23rd minute as DCU began attacking from wide areas more and more to deal with the crowded central midfield.
United had to endure some bad news in the 28th minute as Silva went down holding his hamstring after an awkward attempt to beat two Dynamo defenders to a cross from Kemp. Silva had to be helped off the field and appeared to be in serious pain. Eddie Johnson came on for United's leading scorer as a result of the injury.
Ben Olsen's side was undeterred, with Nick DeLeon - who looked hungry for a goal throughout - blasting a hard shot right at Deric in the 34th minute. Six minutes later, Perry Kitchen nearly managed to play Espindola through only for Servando Carrasco to arrive and poke the ball away at the last moment.
United would take the lead in the 41st minute, and arguably from their least-likely scorer bar Hamid. Espindola had been struggling with his accuracy when it came to the final ball, but he slotted Chris Pontius through on goal with a cleverly chopped pass. Deric managed to block the ball away from Pontius before a shot could be taken, but the ball rebounded to Kemp. United's young left back charged onto the ball at the corner of the penalty area, settling the loose ball before firing across goal and through traffic to score.
There was controversy before halftime as Houston were nearly given a penalty kick deep into first half stoppage time. Barnes hit his cross straight into Birnbaum, and then turned to the assistant referee to plead for a handball. After a moment, the AR obliged despite having a great look at the ball striking Birnbaum's chest and shoulder. Elfath initially blew his whistle, but wisely had a chat with the AR before overruling him to make the correct no-call.
Houston entered the game needing to win to have any realistic chance of preserving their thin playoff hopes, and that desperation was made clear via the Dynamo's high line and confused defending. Kofi Sarkodie was forced to dive to block a low cross from Franklin in the 52nd minute after a Houston breakdown, and a minute later DeLeon blasted a half-cleared free kick just wide. Pontius very nearly got a deflection on the shot as well, and any contact would have likely gone into the back of the net with Deric wrong-footed.
The Dynamo would create their first real chance of the second half in the 58th minute. Driver's cross from the right was dummied on by Brad Davis, fooling United's defense. The ball fell to Barnes in a great spot, but Hamid made an excellent airborne save to preserve the 1-0 scoreline.
That save would prove crucial, as Espindola would push United's advantage to 2-0 in the 64th minute. The attack originated from a Dynamo free kick, as Espindola left the wall early to deflect an attempted Davis service into the box. Elfath didn't order a retake, nor did he call Driver's apparent handball that followed. Franklin thumped the ball clear, and Espindola charged onto the ball to find himself in behind the entire Houston defense from the center stripe. United's crafty Argentine managed to out-run the retreating Davis, and as Deric came off his line Espindola opted for a perfect lob over the keeper and in.
Houston didn't let the goal kill them off, however. In the 70th minute, Cummings cut in from the left side to feed Driver, who teed Clark up for a rocket that hit the crossbar before going behind. United was forced into several good defensive plays over the next few minutes as the Dynamo threw numbers forward - including a move to a 3142 formation - in a desperate bid to save their season.
The pressure would pay off in the 81st minute, though it again required some iffy officiating. Davis swung a corner kick towards the back post, and as the ball flew over Franklin and Clark ended up on the ground. Elfath called a foul on Franklin, though replays showed Clark initiating the contact by grabbing Franklin's arm and dragging him to the ground. This time there was no one to overrule, however, and the penalty kick was given. After the complaints died down, Barnes eventually stepped up to send Hamid the wrong way from the spot, making it 2-1 in the 83rd minute.
United nearly let the Dynamo complete their unlikely comeback after Barnes took advantage of some hesitant defending on the edge of the box, but Arnaud made a strong tackle to prevent a shot.
Moments later, United would have their third. Kemp found Espindola in a huge gap, but a great recovery sprint from Corey Ashe prevented a pass back across goal to a wide open Franklin. Espindola didn't lose the ball however, and passed back to substitute David Estrada, whose cross-field ball found Franklin still open on the right. Franklin controlled the ball before passing to Johnson, who was left wide open in the middle of the Dynamo box. United's #7 had enough time to settle the ball before guiding it coolly past Deric, making it 3-1 after 87 minutes.
Houston would create one more half-chance - an Alex Lopez shot right at Hamid - before getting one last legitimate look in the 94th minute. Driver's cross from the left ended up in between the feet of Cummings, and the ball ended up bouncing off his heel right to Clark. Clark has scored a couple long-range goals on United over the years, but this time his shot was too close to Hamid, who blocked the shot away from danger.
With the victory, United is now six points clear in the East with 55 points. One more point in the final two games of the season will seal the Eastern Conference title and a place in the 2015-2016 CONCACAF Champions League. The win also ties United with the 2000 Metrostars in terms of the biggest one-season turnaround in MLS history, so the same point that will win the conference will also make history. For Houston, the loss eliminates them from playoff contention, an added bonus for United fans still bitter about the 2012 Eastern Conference final.
Next up for the Black-and-Red is the final home game of the regular season against the Chicago Fire this coming Saturday night.