Upcoming cross-country road trip offers stern test to Houston Dynamo squad
Calling it a "road trip" is not strictly accurate, as well as being an epic understatement. What the Dynamo are about to undertake is an air odyssey: three flights in six days covering a distance of some 5,000 miles.
The team travels to California on Saturday ahead of Sunday night's game against the LA Galaxy in the Home Depot Center (10 pm, ESPN2). On Monday, Dominic Kinnear's men fly directly from California to the nation's capital to meet D.C. United on Wednesday evening (6 pm, CSN Houston / Mega TV).
They will arrive back in Houston on Thursday, only three days before welcoming Sporting Kansas City to BBVA Compass Stadium (BUY TICKETS). It's an itinerary that will test the players' stamina even before they take the field.
The Dynamo do not play two away fixtures again on such short rest until September, and that's against the Chicago Fire and the Columbus Crew, who are relatively near each other.
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Along with variations in climate and styles of play, coping with the amount of travel in MLS is one of the adjustments Andrew Driver has had to make since he joined from the Scottish club Hearts in February.
Driver had spent his career in Edinburgh, where a fixture more than 100 miles away is a rarity. Hearts and their cross-city rivals, Hibernian, are based less than 3.5 miles apart.
But the winger is looking forward to the coast-to-coast schlep. "The distance between them's probably like going to play [from Scotland to] Greece. The country's huge, but we've got to go and do the job on Sunday," he told reporters after Tuesday's training session.
David Beckham's six seasons with the Galaxy gave the club a high profile in Europe so Driver is eager for the chance to play against the reigning MLS champions, who defeated the Dynamo in the past two MLS Cups.
"With Beckham coming over here they're the most well-known team, the biggest team, obviously they won the league last year so they're one of the best teams," he said. "So yes, it's a big game, one that before the season starts you'd highlight as one of the games to look forward to. So it's an exciting game to a player."
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The Galaxy's two Designated Players, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, missed the 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake last weekend through injury. After watching them impress during their spells in the English Premier League, Driver hopes that both will be fit for Sunday's clash.
"Donovan's shown over the years he's a top player and you want to play against top players. You've got Robbie Keane there as well. Growing up he's been one of the best players in the Premier League that I've always liked to watch. He's real quality. As a footballer you want to test yourself against the best. So I'd like to see how we do," he said.
Driver thinks the voyages could prove a useful bonding exercise for a side that's picked up only one point from three MLS away fixtures so far in 2013.
"It gives us the chance to get away as a team, a couple of games as a group together," he said. "We've not done great away from home this year so we've got two games coming up that'll give us the opportunity to [improve]."
Although the 25-year-old has featured on the right flank for the Dynamo over the past four matches, Driver could deputize for Brad Davis on the left wing on Sunday. Houston's captain picked up a red card late in Sunday's 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids that means he is suspended on Sunday. The visitors to BBVA Compass Stadium deservedly led at the interval but a spectacular strike from Giles Barnes rewarded the Dynamo for their sharper second-half play. Against a team as talented as L.A., the Dynamo cannot afford a repeat of the sluggish first 45 minutes against Colorado.
"In the first half I think we just didn't have the fight. We weren't 100 percent there. The second half, we were and we showed what we could do and clawed back from behind," said Driver.
"I've never been on a team that can come from behind as well as we do. We showed a bit of fight to come back into it, but obviously in the first half, something wasn't there. We addressed that at half-time and came out and the game changed."
Another contrast between European and American soccer is that the gulf in ability between the best and worst sides is narrower, resulting in fewer blow-outs and demanding a high degree of consistency.
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"The games we've played in so far this year, it's very tight. There's not massive differences. Some teams might not have a whole load of quality but they play well as a team and they know how to get results. So we've got to raise our level every week to get more results," Driver said.
Houston will certainly need to be at their best to beat Stoke City. The storied Premier League club were announced yesterday as the opposition for the BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup on July 24. The match marks a return to Houston for former Dynamo stand-out Geoff Cameron, who joined Stoke last summer.
As well as a stern on-field examination against one of England's most solid teams, Dynamo president Chris Canetti said that facing a well-known European club can help boost Houston's image abroad. In turn, that encourages players of the caliber of Driver and Barnes to fly across the Atlantic.
"There's huge value that I've found in having an international brand. Even though we compete in MLS and in Houston, Texas, there's real value," said Canetti. "You look at guys like Giles Barnes and Andrew Driver coming over here, they have to have some positive perception of the Dynamo to want to come and play for the team. So there's an advantage to something like that."
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.