In the opening minutes, a corner kick dropped into the New York goal area but no Dynamo player could get a touch before it was cleared, and minutes later Brian Ching cut a ball back from the byline that triggered another brief scramble. Wade Barrett pushed up the left side to run down a bouncing ball and once inside the box could have either shot or passed; whichever he chose, he delivered nothing decisive, and the ball skipped a yard wide of the far post.
A wide-open Ching header that went straight to goalie Danny Cepero, an Eddie Robinson header off the crossbar, and numerous other near-misses plagued the Dynamo. In the first half, Cepero came out of the penalty area and misplayed a through ball; Ching knocked it over his head toward the goal but then rather than just sliding into the ball to guide it into the net, he tried to trap it, and when it bounced up again, Cepero flew over his shoulder to claim it. Ching fluffed another great chance early in the second half when played into space on the right flank, and hit a weak shot Cepero blocked over the byline.
Contrast those efforts with that of midfielder Dane Richards, the man most responsible for all three goals. He blew inside left back Barrett to run down a Sinisa Ubaparipovic through ball, held off his challenge while dribbling into the penalty area, and as defender Bobby Boswell closed in, fired a shot over keeper Pat Onstad and into the top corner: 1-0, Red Bulls in the 25th minute.
Before taking the lead, New York had launched a counter that yielded a right-wing cross and a Juan Pablo Angel header that flashed just wide of the post as scrambling keeper Pat Onstad lunged desperately into the side netting. It was a miss, but a very close one, and should have sounded a warning that Houston needed to be more careful defending the counter.
Houston never did contain Richards, whose bold proclamation he was going to run Barrett into the ground became reality. He did just that in the 35th minute, bursting past Barrett at midfield to control a bouncing ball with his foot and forehead before hitting a cross that backtracking midfielder Ricardo Clark deflected with his left arm.
Clark and his teammates protested bitterly, but replays showed Clark extending his arm as the ball left Richards' foot. Referee Baldomero Toledo pointed to the penalty spot, and Angel - calm and composed amid the vitriol -- patiently waited out a heated discussion as Dynamo players took turns dragging out the inevitable. Upon hearing the whistle, the visibly non-rattled Angel drilled his shot just inside the post.
Houston repeatedly exposed a rickety New York defense, but seldom did its shots or final passes match the intensity of its pressure. On those rare occasions Houston seriously tested Cepero, he responded by twice thwarting substitute Stuart Holden. Cepero tipped a rising Holden shot over the crossbar, and then kick-saved his low drive in a crowded goalmouth.
A few minutes later, New York clinched the biggest win in its history. Richards broke free again and rather than go for goal himself, smartly stayed wide as he waited for support. When it arrived, he centered a ball John Wolyniec, a veteran of 178 league and postseason games with five different teams, tapped into the net for his first playoff goal.
Maybe that's why Wolyniec's post-goal celebration dance, during which he clawed the air most strangely, appeared so out of place. He'd never been there before.
Most of his teammates hadn't been there, either, and of the two teams, Houston had played in far more critical matches than the Red Bulls the past few years. Yet against all odds, this time New York stayed cool in the most heated moments.