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D.C. United ‘optimistic’ for Dwayne De Rosario’s return on Sunday

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Dwayne De Rosario practiced with purpose Tuesday morning, sliding on the soggy training grounds to disrupt possession, exhibiting a nimble touch and driving shots on target with menace and accuracy. At the end of the session, he was first in line to practice penalty kicks.

De Rosario has not played competitively in more than two months, but with his sprained left knee healed and D.C. United’s season on the brink, the 2011 MLS most valuable player is poised to return in a limited capacity for the decisive leg of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday at RFK Stadium against the Houston Dynamo.

“We are very optimistic he can play,” said assistant coach Chad Ashton, who was handling media duties for his boss, Ben Olsen.

De Rosario was injured Sept. 11 while on Canadian national team duty, and given 10 to 12 weeks to return. Tuesday marked nine weeks.

Although he is ahead of schedule, De Rosario remained cautious.

“I feel good, but there are a lot more days leading up to the game,” United’s assists leader said. “If it feels good on that day, we’ll see. I am there for the team. It doesn’t matter if it’s the second half, overtime, starting or not playing at all.”

De Rosario traveled to New York last week and Houston over the weekend to lend moral support during United’s playoff charge. “Hopefully I can transfer words into actions now,” he said.

After such a long layoff, De Rosario lacks the proper fitness to start and play most of a game. But he could be utilized in the late stages to bolster a team that needs to win by at least two goals and might be without Chris Pontius, its ailing top scorer. United has scored multiple goals in just one of the past nine matches.

The Dynamo opened the two-game, total-goals series with a 3-1 home victory on Sunday. Should United pull even in total goals scored, the teams would play 30 minutes of overtime and, if necessary, a penalty kick shootout.

Pontius departed in the 12th minute of the opener with a pulled groin muscle — an injury he fought through in the previous series against the New York Red Bulls. Aside from goalkeeper Joe Willis, the Game 1 starters didn’t practice Tuesday and weren’t available to comment.

After Sunday’s match, however, Pontius said: “We were questioning whether I should play. I woke up and felt good. In warmups I felt good, so we went along with it. Right now, it’s all about how I feel tomorrow and the next week.”

Midfielder Marcelo Saragosa (hamstring and knee) and center back Brandon McDonald (calf) also exited in the first 56 minutes, exhausting Olsen’s substitutions at an alarmingly early point. Without any relief down the stretch, United suffered from fatigue in Houston’s warmth and unraveled defensively in losing for the first time since Sept. 1.

The club didn’t offer specific injury updates after Tuesday’s practice and Ashton said the effected players would be evaluated daily.

“With as banged up as we are, we will continue to discuss options” in preparation for the second leg, he said. “It will be a recurring thing.”

United notes: The club said it has sold more than 17,000 tickets for Game 2 and expects to fill RFK’s downsized capacity of 19,647. United will not open the upper deck. . . .

Andy Najar, suspended for the conference finals, joined the Honduran national team ahead of Wednesday’s friendly against Peru in Houston.

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