Houston Dynamo are focused in on a deep U.S. Open Cup run
Better known for stopping goals than scoring them, Mike Chabala has found the net twice in 75 career MLS appearances. One of those strikes came against FC Dallas – the Dynamo's opponents on Wednesday night in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup (8 p.m. CT, live stream on HoustonDynamo.com).
The defender was an unlikely goalscoring hero when he claimed his first-ever goal in Frisco on the opening day of the 2010 season: a right-footed shot from the edge of the box to give the Dynamo the lead in a match that ended 1-1.
That year, Dallas went on to lose to the Colorado Rapids in MLS Cup. This season they look strong again and are setting the pace in the Western Conference.
"I scored my first goal there, fond memories. But it's a tough place to play. They've got a good squad and have been doing well this season, it'll be a good test for us," Chabala told HoustonDynamo.com.
The 29-year-old left-sided player spent the first six years of his career with the Dynamo, re-joining the club in 2013 after spells with the Portland Timbers and D.C. United.
The form of Corey Ashe means Chabala has seen limited first-team action in this campaign, but he started and provided an assist last month as Houston beat FC Tucson 2-0 in the previous round of the Cup to set up tomorrow's Texas derby.
The Californian says that the Dynamo are determined to go deep into the competition. "We're going to put our focus into it, this is a tournament that we as a club are putting our stock into this year, so we're looking forward to this game," he said.
"It's our rival game. It's our own-state game and they're top of the West so there's nothing more we'd like to do than knock them off. But they're a heck of a good opponent and they're used to heat too, so it'll be a battle.
"As you progress in this tournament it's a short one but it's a tough one. All the teams around the league really want to win this tournament now and I think guys look at it as a good test. Any competition you can play against each other, a cup that you can win – players want to compete. For the young guys who get chances and get to play those minutes it's not like 'oh this is a reserve game'. This is a cup game, this is representing the club in a first-team game."
As well as the lure of a trophy, the Open Cup is valuable because youngsters log minutes which helps prepare them for the rigors of MLS play. Chabala has been impressed by the swift progress of rookies Anthony Arena and Jason Johnson, who both started against Tucson – as did academy product Bryan Salazar and 2012 draft pick Brian Ownby.
"I think they've been good. The best thing about both of them is that they're eager to learn, and I think that's one of the biggest things about the game. The better student you are, the faster you'll learn," the veteran said.
"It starts at the top with [head coach] Dominic Kinnear and the way he works us and then the type of characteristics he looks for and wants out of his players, and then it's the older guys that lead by example and the younger guys take the lead off them."
Though Arena picked up a knock in training last week, there are signs that the Dynamo's injury problems are easing ahead of tomorrow's match in Frisco and the next MLS fixture, against the Montreal Impact on June 19. But even as more experienced players return, the likes of Arena and Johnson are showing that they belong.
"They've done extremely well and those guys deserve those opportunities. Numbers get low and guys have to step up. They come out here and work hard every day. As an older player in the locker room too you try and lead by example and you also try and take them under your wing a bit and help them," said Chabala.
"One of the things that was great for my career early was watching guys like Wade Barrett and Brian Mullan, specifically those two because I was kind of like this hybrid midfielder-defender. Just watching Brian Mullan, his work-rate was one of the best of the league.
"And I tell the young guys, he's one of the players I modeled my career after, he could outwork everybody. And then all of a sudden you add the technique, skill and quality to it, it makes you really hard to play against. So for these young guys it's all about growing this year, playing the minutes if you possibly can, putting yourself in the 18 to give yourself and opportunity to play but knowing you're on one of the best teams in Major League Soccer and to take advantage of that, don't take a day for granted."
Kinnear said that the Tucson encounter proved an important dress rehearsal for the next game against the Columbus Crew only three days later. Johnson and Arena both played significant roles in that 1-1 road draw.
"I thought that game against FC Tucson the Wednesday before that Saturday game gave guys a little bit of confidence, broke the ice for some people like Anthony. Any time you step on the field it's an opportunity for them. That game as well as reserve games gives these guys a little bit of experience, when they do step on the field they're not too overwhelmed by everything," he said.
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.