Whitecaps to provide stern test to Houston's home unbeaten streak
There are few current streaks in sports as impressive as the Dynamo's 32-game home unbeaten run, standing just two short of Real Salt Lake's all-time record.
Come Saturday night, Houston's aura of invincibility faces a stern test when a side missing key names hosts a buoyant Vancouver Whitecaps at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Two weeks ago, all three Canadian MLS clubs won on the same day for the first time, pointing to the growing strength of soccer north of the border.
The Whitecaps are coming off a 2012 season that ended with a loss to eventual MLS Cup winner LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Playoffs Knockout Round, but the Canadian squad re-loaded in the winter and have the makings of a club looking to end LA's stronghold on the Western Conference. Head coach Martin Rennie signed Daigo Kobayashi and Nigel Reo-Coker to boost the midfield. Kobayashi scored a spectacular long-range goal against the Columbus Crew on March 9 while Reo-Coker has a pedigree few can equal.
The former England Under-21 international is only 28 years old but has captained West Ham United, Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League. Most recently at Ipswich Town in the English second tier, in 2006 he was rated highly enough to be on stand-by for England's World Cup roster.
"It's good to see for the league," said Dynamo midfielder Adam Moffat on Reo-Coker's arrival in MLS. "He's been around for a long time but still playing at a good level. I caught their first game and he was involved a lot, he's done well.
"His experience will be great for their team, they've got a lot of young boys," Moffat told HoustonDynamo.com. "It definitely helps them. He's a hard worker and that's good in this league."
MLSsoccer.com Whitecaps reporter Martin MacMahon agrees. "The Whitecaps have never really had a player in his prime playing in central midfield in a dominant way. For him to come over is a huge coup for the Whitecaps," he said.
Rested after a bye week, MacMahon thinks that Vancouver will arrive in Texas feeling confident given a 2-0 start and that they have the defensive cover to cope without captain Jay DeMerit, who could miss the entire campaign with an Achilles injury suffered early in the opening-day win over Toronto FC.
Vancouver won only three times on the road last season but downed the Dynamo, 3-1 at B.C. Place last June. Tactically, MacMahon believes the team are increasingly focusing on possession soccer that builds from the full backs.
They will be without striker Kenny Miller, who is on Scotland duty, but the rapid attacker Darren Mattocks is a constant threat.
"It's going to be an interesting game," added Moffat. "They've got a little bit of speed, pretty dynamic, it'll be good to see how we match up. "We played them in preseason twice. They've got a good squad."
The 26-year-old is looking forward to a reunion with Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie, a fellow Scot who coached him at the now-defunct lower-division club, Cleveland City Stars.
"Martin and I are good friends, it's always good playing against them and he's done real well for himself. He's come up the leagues over here, he's got a good team there, so good for him," Moffat said.
Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear is without international call-ups Brad Davis, Jermaine Taylor and Boniek Garcia for Saturday's match, though off-season acquisitions Andrew Driver, Eric Brunner and Omar Cummings could step in to fill the gaps.
Regardless of how the line-up is shuffled, most important will be the team's collective ability to cut out the defensive errors that were costly in the previous two games against FC Dallas and Santos Laguna.
"We know what we have to do, we're strong at home. We've got to work hard and maybe clean things up a little bit," Moffat said. "We know it's uncharacteristic, giving up those goals from set pieces, it's unlike us. If we cut that out we've got a good chance of winning games."
Dynamo striker Brian Ching respects Vancouver but is optimistic Houston will move within one match of Salt Lake's historic achievement.
"I think they're playing well. Having said that we're a confident team especially here at home. We always come to play - we know what's on the line with the home record," he said.
"We're not over-confident, we know we have to put the work in, we know they're a good team - but if we approach the game the right way I think we have a great opportunity to win."
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.