Dynamo looking to maintain shutout streak vs. Wondolowski
The expectation that a former player will excel against his old club is so entrenched in soccer folklore that the Italians even coined a phrase for it: "the immutable law of the ex".
So far, the Dynamo are law-breakers: Chris Wondolowski has yet to score or register an assist against his former employers. And he has found the net against every other current MLS club.
The reigning league Most Valuable Player will have an opportunity to complete the set on Saturday when Houston host the San Jose Earthquakes at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Wondolowski's four starts against Houston have brought 12 shots, four on target. As the Dynamo seek a result that would tie Real Salt Lake's all-time record of 34 home games without defeat, the striker is riding a streak of his own: 49 straight regular-season MLS appearances in which he's had at least one shot.
It's a number that shows that the California native is a consistent threat, as if MVP honors and 27 goals last season did not underline that fact and write it in neon lights.
The 30-year-old's mastery of the art of scoring is an inspiration to the Dynamo's own prolific forward, Will Bruin.
"He's kind of the definition of an MLS goalscorer. He's always in the right spots to score goals," Bruin told HoustonDynamo.com. "Everybody knows in the run of play he's the guy to watch but when he gets to the box you don't have much time to try and find him. He's good at getting that half-step on his defender and able to finish the crosses off and also he's very good in the air for his size.
"I'm still trying to watch players like him, his movement in the box. And then obviously you've got to work on finishing it off, because getting there is one thing, finishing it another," the 23-year-old said.
After scoring a franchise best 16 goals in all competitions in 2012, Bruin has yet to score this season, however after three games he is developing a promising partnership with strike-mate Giles Barnes.
"He likes to combine, he's a creative player, high attacking midfielder-slash-forward," said Bruin. "We're still building good chemistry and getting closer and closer to each other, we're still working some things out but once we're on the same page I think it's going to be pretty good."
Barnes scored in last Saturday's 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps and Andrew Driver made his first Dynamo start. Bruin thinks that the winger on loan from Hearts could be a useful source of chances in the future.
"He had a real good game against Vancouver, he brings a lot of energy and works really hard out wide, gets crosses in. I think we've got some good battles for positions and that's what you want as a team," he said.
VIDEO: Xs and Os with Dominic Kinnear
Talking of battles, the Dynamo are prepared for a scrap against San Jose. Frank Yallop's side became infamous for the number of late goals they scored last season - a product of a relentless, never-say-die attitude that has been a hallmark of Houston's displays, especially on home turf.
"They play to the final whistle and we're cool with that. We enjoy that," said Dynamo center back Bobby Boswell.
"I think it's a bit of a helper here with the heat, obviously. I think teams come in and they die and that's why we've had some success late. But we're hot too and we're tired too, we just keep grinding and part of that's our fans getting behind us, still singing and dancing the whole time. It should make for a good game."
San Jose attackers Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon are yet to feature in 2013 after off-season surgery. That places an even greater responsibility on Wondolowski, who was traded to the Earthquakes for Cam Weaver in 2009.
Wondolowski shouldered the burden in style last week, scoring the only goal of the game - a rare effort from outside the area - in a win over the Seattle Sounders. Last year, a Brad Davis penalty made the difference as the Dynamo beat San Jose 1-0 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
"I've seen them play a lot, I'm familiar with what they're doing and going to try to do. The question is, can we be better and stop them?" said Boswell. Keeping Wondolowski under constant surveillance is a vital task.
"We're pretty familiar with him, some of us have played with him," said Boswell. "He's a busybody, man, he's all over the field. He never stops. Great engine and he's become a hell of a finisher in terms of any half-chance he scores. He's been a little unlucky, happily for us, bad for him, against us. He's hit the post a couple of times and the crossbar and whatnot.
"I think the biggest thing is just holding him accountable, making sure you know where he is at all times. But don't focus too much on any one player because anybody can beat you. There's a Supporters Shield champion right there, they have a good team so if you focus too much on him, somebody else will step in and maybe punish you. They try to create havoc all over the field and they try to put the ball in the box, create a lot of chances. So we've just got to be on our game."
Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear will ask the defense to stick tight to the striker, who featured for the U.S. against Canada at BBVA Compass Stadium in January.
"You have to make sure there's always someone around him because he has good movement in and around the box. He's a good finisher, we all know that. The best thing about him is that he's always expecting a chance. So on the other side of it, defensively you always have to expect the worst, you have to think the chances will happen," said Kinnear.
"Chris has taken advantage of the opportunities that have been given to him by playing time and chances in front of the goal," the Dynam head coach continued. "We're all happy for him. It's been a great move for him personally and professionally but come Saturday he's an opponent we're trying to stop and hopefully he doesn't get his chances."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian as well as SI.com.