Houston Dynamo not intimidated by raucous crowd at Sporting Park
Up in Kansas City, they call it the Blue Hell: the crammed, raucous arena that's home to one of the toughest teams and most ardent fanbases in MLS. Naturally, the Dynamo can't wait to get there.
"I always say I love these games because this is the growth of Major League Soccer," said Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear. "You don't want to go somewhere and there's no one there, you want to go to places where there's atmosphere, where the fans are into it, because it feels proper.
"I think the guys do enjoy going to these places. Don't get me wrong, it's not easy going there, but I think from a professional experience I think you'd prefer to go there than go to somewhere where it's not as fun to play."
Used to large, noisy crowds at BBVA Compass Stadium, the Dynamo players won't be intimidated when they show up at Sporting Park for Sunday's nationally-televised game (2.30 p.m., NBCSN).
"These guys are experienced enough, they've played in some big occasions where it doesn't rattle them," said Kinnear.
For one thing, the Dynamo have happy memories of recent trips there. Last year's two regular-season meetings at Sporting Park were ties, and a 1-0 Dynamo loss in the Eastern Conference playoffs semifinal second leg was cause for celebration as it meant a 2-1 aggregate win and progression to face D.C. United in the next round.
And Houston's impressive post-season record shows that Kinnear has forged a roster that knows how to rise to big occasions and relishes a challenge. The 1-0 win over the MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center earlier this month - swiftly followed by a 4-0 demolition of D.C. at RFK Stadium - proves that the group is capable of producing big victories on its travels.
Passions run high in MLS, especially when top teams face off. Last Saturday alone there were six red cards in six fixtures: two in the Dynamo's 2-0 loss to the New England Revolution after Houston defender Bobby Boswell clashed with the visitors' Dimitry Imbongo.
Dynamo captain Brad Davis believes that beating Sporting will require the team to find the right balance between heart and head.
"Sometimes the adrenalin gets going and you just want to go a thousand miles an hour but you have to have that happy medium I guess of being mean, being gritty but being smart in a good professional way, calming the game down when you need calming down. We have guys that have the ability to differentiate those two things," he said.
Before the end-to-end defeat to New England, Peter Vermes' team carved out a 1-0 win at BBVA Compass Stadium with a late goal that settled an evenly-matched contest with few chances.
"Both games were a little bit different. The Kansas City game was so close and it took a play by them to win the game," said Kinnear. "[Against New England] we go down a goal, we're fighting to equalize and they catch us on the break. I'm not looking for anything different [this weekend], obviously except for the result. The effort and the attitude's been very good."
The Dynamo (6-4-2) are third in the Eastern Conference with 20 points from 12 matches. That's four points more than the club had earned at the same stage last year, when they went on to reach MLS Cup for the second year in succession. Kinnear likes the Dynamo's attacking ethos and willingness to commit men forward in search of an equalizer, as they did last Saturday.
"I think we've been competitive. Look at every game - chance after chance and you catch us on the break. Chance, chance catch us on the break," said Kinnear. "So we were trying, we weren't just sitting back, we were trying to do something about it. That's what we always ask of these guys and they do it every week."
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.