Between suspensions and injuries, Houston Dynamo's depth to be tested on Sunday
One man's misfortune is another's opportunity, so Eric Brunner is ready to make his second start in orange on Sunday when the Dynamo host the Colorado Rapids at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Jermaine Taylor's red card was briefly forgotten amid the celebrations last weekend as Houston claimed their first road point of the season with a last-gasp equalizer against Toronto FC. It means the center back is suspended for the Rapids' visit.
Taylor was contentiously sent off at BMO Field for a professional foul on striker Robert Earnshaw, who tumbled to the ground as the pair chased a loose ball in the 62nd minute. Brunner came off the bench for Giles Barnes two minutes later as head coach Dominic Kinnear replenished the Dynamo's back four.
"It's tough. I watched the tape of it and to me it looks like they're both battling for that position. It's unfortunate," Brunner told HoustonDynamo.com. "It's just one of those things when they were both trying hard for the ball and it just happens. It is tough, it's a sticky situation."
The 27-year-old believes that defenders must be ultra-vigilant because opponents are increasingly adept at persuading referees to award fouls for even the most minor contact. The high tempo of modern soccer means defenders must make game-defining decisions in the blink of an eye. And world governing body FIFA has clamped down on dangerous tackles, causing referees to penalize challenges that might not even have been deemed fouls only five or ten years ago.
"I was watching the [Toronto] game [on Monday]. We're smart guys. I think they were trying to get a foul at the top of the box towards the end of the game just to kill a little bit of time," said Brunner. "There were three of us that made it difficult for him but didn't touch him and we ended up getting the ball and countering. I think that's just the intelligence of the team, knowing that we can't give up free kicks in that situation that late in the game."
Though tackling is risky and strikers are crafty, MLS defenders can take comfort from knowing that red cards this season have been rare. According to Opta, there were 63 sendings-off in the MLS regular season last year - far below the 2011 total of 90. With nine red cards through eight weeks of the current campaign, MLS is on pace for a lower tally than in the past two years.
The Dynamo are shooting for a league-record 30 consecutive regular season home games without defeat on Sunday but must wait on the health of midfielders Adam Moffat and Brad Davis, who came off injured during a match played in near-freezing temperatures in Canada.
Acquired from the Portland Timbers last December in exchange for allocation money, Brunner proved an able deputy for Taylor in the 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps last month when the Jamaican was on international duty. An Ohio native, Brunner made ten league starts for Portland last year and was a first-choice for them week-in, week-out in 2011.
May's fixture list looks tricky, with trips to the Los Angeles Galaxy, D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. But with thirteen points from seven matches the Dynamo sit second in the Eastern Conference, a point behind Sporting, who have played a game more. It's Houston's best start after seven games since 2006. Brunner attributes the positive beginning to team spirit.
"We have an unbelievable locker room, that's very hard to find in this league and I think that attests to some of our success. Being able to mesh and get along with everyone off the field. In the locker room we're all good friends and I think that's great, I think that's why we're doing so well," he said.
Brunner cited Warren Creavalle's 94th-minute header from Andrew Driver's set-piece to tie Toronto as a perfect example of the side's stubborn streak. "I think it just shows how our team is, we always play to the end and we did it with what, 30 seconds left in the game?" he said. "I think that shows that we're fit because we were all chasing down balls and Will [Bruin] did a great job chasing that last ball down to force the corner kick. Everyone's just fighting, that's how the Houston Dynamo is."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.