Houston Dynamo looking for complete performance against the Chicago Fire
The Dynamo have not had everything go their own way against the Chicago Fire down the years but in 2012 they won when it mattered most.
The clubs meet at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday for the first time in MLS since their clash at Toyota Park in the playoffs curtain-raiser known as the Eastern Conference knock-out match.
The Dynamo had not won a league game on the road for three months but set the tone for their run to MLS Cup with an organized, determined and effective performance in a 2-1 victory on Halloween.
Top scorer Will Bruin headed in Brad Davis' corner in the 12th minute then doubled the Dynamo's lead just 19 seconds after half-time with a sharp finish when Ricardo Clark intercepted the ball in midfield and Calen Carr slipped his fellow striker in on goal.
Alex pulled a goal back for Chicago after 83 minutes but the visitors held firm to advance to an Eastern Conference semifinals date with Sporting Kansas City.
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"We'd said if we could get one early we'd have control of the game and that's what we did, with the corner-kick goal. Then we came out of the gate real quick in the second half and that's huge for us," Bruin told HoustonDynamo.com. "In some games last year the start of the second half was sometimes our downfall, it took us a while to get into the game. But we knew we had to start off the second half quick and we did."
Bruin missed last Saturday's 2-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers with a hamstring injury but is optimistic he'll be ready for Sunday. Boniek Garcia also sat out the trip to JELD-WEN Field with an achilles problem and his status is uncertain. But new signing Andrew Driver could fill in for Garcia out wide if the Honduras international is unavailable.
Whoever starts, captain Brad Davis said on Friday that he wants to see "a complete 90 minutes" from the team after the performance level dipped in the second half against Portland following a solid first period.
That's rarely a problem at BBVA Compass Stadium. Frank Klopas' team are barring the path to history, as Houston are seeking to extend their remarkable unbeaten home streak to an MLS-record 35 games. Currently, the Dynamo are level with the mark of 34 home matches without defeat in all competitions set by Real Salt Lake between 2009-11.
The Fire are one of the Eastern Conference's traditional powerhouses. Since their first season in 1998 they have only missed the playoffs three times. Yet it is hard to know what to expect from them on Sunday. Chicago endured a surprisingly slow start to the season but grabbed their first win last Sunday with a 3-1 home success over the New York Red Bulls.
"They got the much-needed win that they were searching for against the Red Bulls so maybe they come here with a little more confidence and looking to get forward, I don't know," said Bruin. "They're tough to break down. They stay compact defensively. I don't know if they're going to come in and kind of get behind the ball or if they're going to go out and [attack], but I think for us keeping the ball, being patient with it and having that final pass and finish in the final third is going to be huge."
As Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear pointed out this week, it's still early in the season and patterns have yet to emerge. But he is wary of Chicago's ability.
"I think they're a good team. I think you look at the history of MLS and every team goes through bad spots and good spots, except for maybe one team that can go through the whole season being consistent," said Kinnear.
With Sporting Kansas City taking a break this weekend, the Dynamo could go into first place in the East if they win and leaders Montreal Impact lose to the Columbus Crew on Sunday.
"We still have 29 games to go, it's a lot of games when you think about it. I don't look at it as months, I always look at the list of how many games are left. We're five games into a 34-game season but you always want to check the standings and make sure you're in a playoff spot," said Kinnear.
"It's always our first ambition to make the playoffs so if you're in that area then you're keeping yourself in a good spot. Montreal shot out of the gate, Chivas put together some good results and obviously last year they weren't playoff teams - but that's MLS."
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.