Houston Dynamo relish late-season pressure: "This is the time of year I really look forward to," says Brad Davis
To reach the playoffs, act like they've already started.
With only eight regular-season MLS games left, every match matters in the close-knit East. New York are joint-top, five points ahead of the Dynamo, who lost 2-0 to the Columbus Crew last Wednesday.
Houston have proved down the years that they thrive in the do-or-die atmosphere of the postseason, so Davis wants his teammates to relish the pressure and treat every game as if it could be the last.
"If we can get everybody to take that playoff mentality, it's something that we need to really instill: 'it's time to go, we're ready'. You can feel it, guys are on edge, guys are ready to go," he said.
Games between New York and Houston are usually lively and no one is downplaying the importance of Sunday's meeting at this late stage of the season and given the result's potential impact on the race for the top places in the division.
"For me, this is the time of year I really look forward to. It's what you've been fighting and grinding all year for. All of a sudden you win on Sunday and the confidence is high," said Davis. "[Win or lose] you have to stay on an even keel—but for me this is time to go, it really is."
The players are clearly desperate to bounce back straight away from the defeat at Crew Stadium, which concluded a stretch of three successive MLS road games that reaped a single point. After a promising start to the match against Columbus it was a tale of the Dynamo failing to take advantage of their periods of dominance, not converting chances and losing a game which had seemed winnable.
"It's not like guys aren't putting [effort] in, it's just one of those things that we're going to have to grind for everything to get ourselves out of where we're at. We're doing some good things, it's just putting all those things together. I really feel that Sunday's an opportunity for us to do that, we're looking forward to getting back out on the field," said Davis.
"It's an opportunity to beat those guys, get on top of those guys. The thing is too, we're upset because we hold ourselves up to a high standard, but we're still right in the middle of things. There's eight games to go. You can see we're upset and things aren't going the way we wanted to but that's the character of this group, we don't like losing, we don't like where we're at but by no means are we out of what we're trying to do."
For Davis and goalkeeper Tally Hall—who saved a penalty in midweek—the team's inconsistency isn't down to a lack of talent or work rate, but a question of execution. In other words, of playing to its potential on a regular basis.
"We know we are a good team, and we've seen it this year where we've put together games where I think we can beat anybody in the league, then we haven't performed that way in other games. That's not what this team has a history of doing, we have a history of being pretty consistent, especially at this time of the year, so we know we're a veteran group that's capable of more and we're hungry for it," said Hall. "We know we have areas that we need to improve upon, that we're giving up too many goals, it's being discussed and we know it's an important time of the year."
Asked to describe the squad's current mood, he said: "It's not anger, it's frustration. But it's not a self-pity frustration, it's something where we're frustrated because we know we're better than what we've shown, especially the last road trip we were on."
Seven of the Dynamo's remaining MLS fixtures are against Eastern Conference foes, including all five clubs currently ahead of them in the standings, so as Hall points out, Houston do not need favors.
"We've faced difficult spells toward the end of the season with this group, we're still here, still in the playoff hunt, still have destiny in our hands. It's not like we need to be praying that other teams don't do well. Other teams can do just fine, we take care of our business," he said. "It comes down to us and that's what this team thrives on. We've got to go out and show it."
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.