Even 3-1 down, even without its top goal scorer, top defender, top teenage prospect and top cost-effective backup midfielder (shoutout to Stephen King!), I thought D.C. United could win Sunday’s second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference finals. United has made us believe that any eleven we put on the field can get results. Is you high-paid playmaker not working out? No sweat: Replace him with a guy (Marcelo Saragosa) who has been bouncing from team to team … in Azerbaijan. Did last year’s MVP get hurt? No big deal: Give more minutes to a guy (Lewis Neal) who played for Stoke back before Stoke was the Total Futbol glamor club that it is now. I think there’s a lesson here for all of us: We are replaceable. Don’t get too comfortable, because any college intern is probably a weekend training course away from being able to do what you do almost as well for a quarter of the cost. Also in two years there will be an iPhone app that does your entire job.

On the other hand: no Pontius, Najar or McDonald. That’s bad. And if we get De Ro, it’ll be De Ro on shaky newborn-fawn legs. But Houston is dealing with hardship, too, most notably getting Ricardo Clark back for this game (2010 World Cup-inspired burn!).

United’s lineup: Hamid | Korb, Dudar, Jakovic, Russell | DeLeon, Kitchen, Saragosa, Boskovic | Pajoy, Santos. It’s a shame that the lineup playing in the Eastern Conference Final isn’t a better reflection of the lineup that got us there.

Here’s kickoff from RFK, which is full of black, white and red flags in support of United (and not, I assume, in support of World War I Germany)

9’ – Korb with a strike, which saved well by Tally (I call him “Towelie”) Hall! Korb is feeling it – good start for him.
11’ – 79 more minutes like the first 11 will get us to a final.
15’ – So far, Santos is winning any ball played more than 25 yards away from Houston’s goal and Boswell is winning anything inside 25 yards.
19’ – Correct me if I’m wrong (actually, don’t – I’m a very small person and don’t like being corrected), but I think this is the first game we’ve started this year without either Pontius or De Ro.
25’ – If I was giving scores for the first 25 minutes, everyone would be scoring a 5 or higher except for Pajoy.
28’ – It’s a credit to how good Jakovic and McDonald (and to a lesser extent Dudar) have been that I’m not complaining about how we never should have traded Bobby Boswell. Because Boswell is still good and is playing well tonight.
33’ – GOAL HOUSTON! Their first real chance of the game, and Davis finds Garcia, who had freed himself from Dudar! Here’s my expert analysis of United’s situation: This is bad, dude. We just went from to kinda reamed to practically screwed.
34’ – When down by three goals, it’s good – almost obligatory – to say: “Liverpool vs. AC Milan, 2005” (for the uninitiated: Liverpool came from three goals down to win the Champions League). What did people say before 2005? “The probability of winning a game in which you trail by three goals is not statistically insignificant”?
36’ – Pajoy is the least exciting “behind the defense” player ever. When someone plays him through, the crowd barely even gets excited; they know he’s not going to score. Expecting Pajoy to score would be like expecting Charlie Brown to kick that football.
41’ – Very ragged soccer from United right now; we need something positive to happen. Where’s a streaker or Fan Man when you need them? We need a change in momentum.
Halftime: 1-0 Houston, 4-1 aggregate. The good news: We should see some exciting, go-for-broke soccer in this half. The bad news: All is lost and only a fool would not see the giant black cloud of doom hovering over us. So, you know … there are pros and cons.
46’ – Neal coming in for Saragosa. I’m not sure Lewis Neal makes me think “creative genius”, but he does have two healthy legs.
46’ – Creative genius Lewis Neal plays a great ball to Pajoy, but Pajoy is so unbelievably slow. Bobby Boswell has been outrunning him.
47’ – Russell volleys it over the bar! Though he should have been called offside, so that would have been a cheap goal. On the other hand: I would be totally fine with a cheap goal right now.
55’ – Salihi comes in for Pajoy – miserable season in for miserable game. Since we’re likely 35 minutes from the offseason, I’m already starting to think of which strikers might be available.
60’ – Here comes De Rosario. It’s like a movie script: the team is down, facing impossible odds, so the hero comes in with a little time left on the clock. Time for a “things have suddenly turned around!” sports movie montage. Cue the hair metal and not-at-all realistic play-by-play commentary.
65’ – The sports movie montage appears to be a little slow in arriving. So far it’s just been more crappy soccer.
67’ – The ball gets through to Salihi but his touch is like mentioning Syria in a soccer/comedy blog: too heavy!
71’ – Kandji has a chance to finish it, but his shot is wide! Houston have done a bad job of burying the knife. No swift death for us.
75’ – We need three goals in 15 minutes. It’s not impossible, but these are the type of odds that only Joe Scarborough or Karl Rove could look at and think “I like where we’re at!”.
77’ – Great save by Hamid! He’s keeping United in this match. Unfortunately, the clock is not.
83’ – Goal United! 1-1! Boskovic with a great individual effort, and it’s 4-2 on aggregate! Can United pull off a miracle?
84’ – No.
85’ – Or can they?
86’ – No, they can’t. It’s over.
87’ – Or is it?
88’ – Yes.
89’ – But wait a minute … do you believe in miracles?
90’ – That’s a pretty deep philosophical question, but if you’re talking about this match, then no, I don’t believe in miracles.
90’ + 4’ – But just when it looked like all hope was lost … it was. Full time: 4-2 Houston. Season over.

This doesn’t hurt nearly as much as when we were knocked out in ‘05, ‘06 or ‘07. Those were excellent teams – potential MLS Cup winners. I feel like this team achieved what it could achieve. Third or fourth best in the league … that’s about right. Actually, that’s unbelievably good when just two years ago we should have been honorarily relegated from MLS. This was a good team that won a lot of tough games and got to the conference semis, where we just couldn’t overcome the loss of so many key players. But we’re in a good spot. We’re building. We’re progressing. The core is in place. How long ‘till next year?

Player ratings:

Hamid: 6. After the Olympics and the playoffs so far, I was starting to wonder about his performance in big matches. But he was good tonight.
Korb: 6.5. Korb ended up being a big part of this team. Definitely a guy to bring back next year.
Jakovic: 6.5. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d compare my scores for Jakovic last year with my scores for him this year and use that as evidence that he’s progressed. Instead, I’ll just say this: he’s progressed.
Dudar: 6. Played some very nice long passes, but losing Garcia on that goal was a dagger.
Russell: 6.5. Good game, but I’m pretty sure he’s lost his spot to Andy Najar.
DeLeon: 5.5. He’s good, he’s young, he’ll be back.
Kitchen: 5.5. Ditto.
Saragosa: 4. The Kitchen-Saragosa engine room works okay, but it really benefits from having attacking fullbacks.
Boskovic: 6.5. Ended the season strong. At times he looks like a difference maker.
Santos: 6. I honestly don’t like slamming players on this blog, so just notice the difference in tone as I evaluate the players. Santos’s holdup play was excellent, he won a lot of balls in the air and it’s a shame he couldn’t free his left foot for a shot.
Pajoy: 2.5. I like his haircut.
Neal: 3. He’s been a great find, but he was battling an injury this match and it showed.
Salihi: 4.5. Frustrating that he couldn’t get a shot off. I’ll quote Michael Scott quoting Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
De Rosario: 5. His injury helped end our season, but it didn’t ruin it. It was a good year.