Houston, which is 10-1-4 this season at Robertson Stadium, trailed by a goal after the first leg in both the 2006 and 2007 conference semifinals. The response? It beat Chivas USA, 2-0, to win 3-2 on aggregate two years ago, and thrashed FC Dallas, 4-1, in overtime last year for a 4-2 series victory.
"I'm not saying it's OK to lose, because you never want to do that, but the most important thing in the two-leg format is not to lose by two goals," says Coach Dominic Kinnear. "In 2006, we were down 2-0 in the second half, but we knew if we got a goal we'd go back home in good shape, and we got one from Brian Ching, and that gave us a big boost going into the home game."
Brad Guzan saved a late Dwayne De Rosario penalty kick that could have tied the game, yet still Kinnear and his team exuded confidence and duly got the win they needed in the second leg.
Last week at the Meadowlands, Houston fell behind, 1-0, to a Juan Pablo Angel goal in the 48th minute, and nearly went down two goals five minutes later but Richard Mulrooney cleared away a Dane Richards shot that had evaded keeper Pat Onstad. The Red Bulls took another discouraging hit with five minutes left in regulation when Stuart Holden set up Kei Kamara for the equalizer.
"We stepped up to their physical play and we matched them," said Richards. "They're supposed to be one of the best teams in MLS, if not [the best team]. We matched them. We almost won, five minutes left we gave up a goal. Hopefully, we can do the same at their home with a different end result."
A more objective viewpoint is the Red Bulls played one of their best games in recent months and still couldn't win at home, and midfield catalyst De Rosario and Ching will almost certainly be sharper than they were in the first leg. New York has won only once on the road this season, but all it needs to force penalties is a tie, which it has done in six away games.
The lineup tinkering and tweaking of Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio will doubtless present a different lineup than the one he used last week when he benched playmaker Jorge Rojas in favor of Sinisa Ubiparipovic, and started Luke Sassano at holding mid instead of Juan Pietravallo.
The goalscoring guile of Angel, the pace of Richards, and the spunky goalkeeping of Danny Cepero certainly give New York a chance to pull a staggering upset, but all the personnel maneuvering and tactical acumen in the world can't mask the stark fact that Houston is a deeper, better, hungrier team that ruthlessly throttles teams when it plays at home, especially in the playoffs.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS, Game 2
HOUSTON vs. NEW YORK (1-1)
Sunday, 3 p.m. (TeleFutura)