With fall around the corner, now is crunch time for Houston Dynamo
You're not supposed to wear white after Labor Day, but there is no better time of year to clad yourself in Dynamo orange.
The fall is a great period to be in Houston. It's not just the prospect of those 100-degree days cooling to something a little more comfortable.
It's that the slow fade of summer marks the climax of the MLS season, and that's almost always an exciting moment to be a Dynamo fan. In the franchise's seven years of existence, it's only failed to reach the post-season once, in 2010.
This year, as we enter the concluding two months, the scrap for the top five spots in the Eastern Conference looks set to go down to the wire, with no team so far able to pull clear of the pack and put together a long run of strong form.
To underline how closely-matched teams are, Houston, the Montreal Impact, the New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution have each collected seven points from their past five matches. With nine to go, Houston are sixth, level on points with the Revolution but below them due to fewer goals scored.
However, the Dynamo have games in hand on most of their rivals, and one of them comes tonight away to the Columbus Crew (6:30 p.m. CT; CSN Houston, Mega TV). It's an occasion sprinkled with extra spice because the hosts fired their head coach, Robert Warzycha, following last Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders.
A Dynamo win would lift the team to fourth in the East, just two points behind the three clubs tied for first, as well as leaving Columbus' own playoff hopes looking very remote. It would also set Houston up perfectly for one of the most eagerly-anticipated fixtures at BBVA Compass Stadium this year, Sunday's visit of Thierry Henry's Red Bulls (4 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
Last year the Dynamo put themselves in a strong position with five straight wins in July and August, then went 3-3-3 in the final nine games of the regular season. With a top-five place assured, head coach Dominic Kinnear rested a number of players for the last game, a defeat by the Colorado Rapids.
On paper (or screen), this year's set of concluding MLS fixtures looks tougher. Only three of the Dynamo's last nine in 2012 were against clubs that ultimately made the playoffs.
Now, the Dynamo have five home and four road games to go. Eight of that set are against Eastern Conference clubs (the other is versus Chivas USA, bottom of the West). And six of those are clashes with the five East sides currently above the Dynamo (Houston hosts New York again in October).
So while the coming schedule represents a stiff challenge, it is also a huge opportunity. Every win against playoff contenders counts that bit extra, because it ensures that a rival will lose ground. And it strikes a psychological blow against potential postseason opponents.
Of course, the Dynamo aren't alone in facing tough games down the stretch. Two of Kansas City's last five fixtures, for example, are against fourth-placed Philadelphia Union. Montreal must play New England twice. With one or both teams sure to drop points when they meet, battles among near-neighbors in the standings give other sides the chance to capitalize.
For all the permutations and possibilities, all the Dynamo can do is go game-by-game, the goal always the same: victory. The Dynamo have not won at Crew Stadium since 2007, but beat the Crew 3-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium a month ago following a 1-1 draw in Ohio in June. Brian Bliss was appointed interim head coach after Warzycha's exit. Though teams often see results improve when a new head coach takes charge and Columbus are desperate for three points, they are without several key players through injury and influential playmaker Federico Higuain is suspended.
Boniek García and Jermaine Taylor are away on international duty and Omar Cummings and Ricardo Clark are questionable through injury and illness respectively for the Dynamo as they complete a hat-trick of successive road games in MLS, fitted around last week's 2-1 CONCACAF Champions League home win over Árabe Unido.
If this is the time of year that truly reveals a team's character and capabilities, then this Dynamo squad welcomes the pressure.
"I think what everyone around the league knows about this team is that we’re good at finishing the season. A lot of veterans have been here and done it and this gives us the lift that we need," defender Corey Ashe told reporters after the 1-1 draw with Chicago on Sunday that was secured thanks to the latest Adam Moffat netbuster.
"Coming off a disappointing loss in Montreal, you take a step kind of in the right direction result-wise, but we know we still have a lot of work to go," said Ashe. "Obviously Columbus is right behind us, so we are at the stage where you can’t be really dropping points. Chicago is so close to us, the race for the playoffs is so tight, so every game is really important.”
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.