Whether it beat or tied Real Salt Lake Monday, the Houston Dynamo went into that match knowing that nothing less than a victory Sunday can earn the Western Conference crown.
In this case, four points from a tie and a win doesn't equal four points from a win and a tie.
By beating RSL, 1-0, Houston - which trailed conference leader Chivas USA by four points at kickoff -- shaved all but one point from that lead and will claim the conference title by winning at Home Depot Center, which no Chivas opponent had been able to do until Colorado did it last Sunday.
Had the Dynamo tied RSL, a win against Chivas USA would leave the teams as co-leaders with 52 points, but having already won the season series, Houston would take the conference title on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Now that it has beaten RSL, if Sunday's game ends in a tie, Houston will remain one point behind Chivas USA, which would win the conference with 53 points to the Dynamo's 52.
In MLS, if nowhere else, one plus three doesn't always equal three plus one.
Missing the suspended Ricardo Clark, the Dynamo (15-8-6) left Dwayne DeRosario and Brian Ching out of the lineup yet still had enough firepower to get the goal it needed and defensive resilience to fend off numerous RSL attacks. Stuart Holden scored in the 66th minute when his cross grazed the gloves of Nick Rimando as the goalie backpedaled furiously to reach the dipping ball.
Minutes earlier, a superb reflex save had denied Holden. His sharp header from a Brian Mullan cross caught Rimando scrambling against the grain, yet still the keeper stabbed out his left glove to turn the shot away. Late in the first half, Mullan had drilled a shot off the crossbar.
RSL gave effort, guile and pluck. What it didn't get was luck in the attacking third.
Yura Movsisyan hit the post after Alecko Eskandarian had pounced on a Houston miscue, and twiceKyle Beckerman drove shots certain to beat Pat Onstad, only to watch Wade Barrettand Richard Mulrooney bail out their goalie with clearances.
The victory came with a cost, however. Defender Eddie Robinson, who was just one caution short of his third suspension, instead got sent off for tripping Beckerman -- or so referee Tim Weyland ruled - just outside the penalty area. He will miss the Sunday showdown at HDC.
Two minutes later, Mulrooney cleared away Beckerman's low shot, and two minutes after that, the teams were level at 10 men apiece.
Onstad edged in front of Movsisyan to punch away a high ball and as the players cleared the area and Movsisyan approached him, Onstad leaned his shoulder toward the RSL forward, who shoved the keeper with both arms. Onstad went down and bounced back up, players from both teams swarmed in, and Weyland brandished the red card yet again.
RSL outshot Houston 14-9 but lost out to the whims of fortune. In the final home MLS game for veteran defender Eddie Pope, RSL (5-15-9) had done its best to play spoiler.
It can reprise that role to the fullest Saturday at Colorado, which can only qualify for the playoffs by winning and getting a few breaks with other results. It might be RSL due for a good bounce this time.
Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City
Real Salt Lake 0 Houston 1. Goal: Holden (Mulrooney) 66.
Real Salt Lake - Rimando, Wingert, Kirby (Espindola, 79), Pope, Kotschau, Sturgis, Talley, Williams (Beckerman, 46), Brown (Watson, 46), Movsisyan, Eskandarian.
Houston - Onstad, Waibel, Cochrane, Robinson, Barrett, Mullan, Holden, Mulrooney, Davis (Ianni, 75), Jaqua, Ngwenya (Ashe, 78).
Yellow Cards: Real Salt Lake - Williams 42, Movsisyan 45; Houston - Cochrane 43.
Red Cards: Real Salt Lake - Movsisyan 77; Houston - Robinson 73.
Referee: Tim Weyland.