Home cooking: History of playoff success buoys Houston Dynamo ahead of New York clash
The first home Dynamo playoff game was a 2-0 win over Chivas USA on October 29, 2006. It certainly set the tone.
Thursday's 3-0 victory over the Montreal Impact was the franchise's tenth postseason match in Houston. The record? Won nine, lost one. Goals scored, 26; goals conceded, six. And half of those six came in the lone defeat, a surprise 3-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in November, 2008.
Especially since all those fixtures came against the league's best teams and the cooler fall weather wipes out one traditional Dynamo advantage, a .900 winning percentage is an extraordinary testament to the performances and atmosphere at first Robertson Stadium, and now BBVA Compass Stadium, which the Red Bulls visit on Sunday for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (2:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
Received wisdom says that it's better to be at home in the second match of a two-legged contest, but the Dynamo—who had never previously held a first-leg match at home—turned that on its head in 2012. Dominic Kinnear's side reached MLS Cup by securing two-goal leads against Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United at BBVA Compass Stadium then producing stubborn road displays to progress.
Houston's home prowess stood out last year, when out of 15 total playoff games in MLS the home club won only seven times. This in a league where home advantage is viewed as pronounced because of long travel distances, few away fans, varying field surfaces and contrasting climates.
No smart side would pile pressure on itself by describing itself as the favorite ahead of a vital contest, but given the statistics it's easy to believe the Red Bulls when they say they are wary of the Dynamo despite recent 4-1 and 3-0 wins at BBVA Compass Stadium in the regular season.
"I’m sure people are going to talk about how we beat them the two times we went to their place, but this is a playoff game. It’s going to be totally different," striker Thierry Henry told reporters this week, according to MLSsoccer.com. "I’ve got a lot of respect for them because they know how to do it in the playoffs. We still don’t know how to do it in the playoffs."
The dismissal of Montreal—who beat the Dynamo twice in the regular season—adds ballast to the argument that when the postseason starts, Houston powers up. The Dynamo's tendency to be extra-focused and cut out sloppy mistakes in the elimination rounds should also make this match a far tighter affair than the previous two fixtures.
In September, the score was 1-1 at halftime, but the visitors ruthlessly capitalized on their chances and found the net three times after the break. Yet an under-strength Dynamo had 57% of possession and 15 attempts on goal to New York's 10.
Then last month, Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill scored after just eight seconds: the fastest goal in MLS history. Following that stunning setback, the Dynamo were better than the margin of victory would imply. They mustered 61% possession and 20 attempts on goal to New York's five.
"We know they're going to come in here confident, they've beaten us multiple times," said left back Corey Ashe. His fellow defender, Bobby Boswell, is determined to ensure that Mike Petke's men do not claim a hat-trick. "They're a good team and we respect the hell out of them but I'd like to think that no team's going to come in here and beat us three times in a single season," said Boswell.
Under Petke's predecessor as head coach, Hans Backe, New York were ousted by D.C. in the 2012 semifinals in a tie complicated by Hurricane Sandy. But this year's version looks stronger. Not least because of Cahill's offensive threat, they have scored in each of their past nine matches.
"Obviously they're a tougher opponent [than Montreal]—Supporters' Shield champs, they're flying high as well," said Ashe. "They banged in five against Chicago [last Sunday], they banged in three against us the week before. It's going to be tough, it's not going to be a cakewalk but I think we have to remember that it's not one game, it's two games."
For Ashe, the key is to replicate the positives from the Impact game. To confirm Henry's thesis from the first kick and add to the data proving that the playoffs here really are different.
"It's just come out with the mindset like we did [versus Montreal], which is to set the tempo. I thought we did well scoring first and scoring often, letting them know this is our field and it's going to be a physical match," he said.
"So I think that's what we have to do with New York. Obviously they have a lot of great players, not just Henry, obviously with Cahill, all over the field they have great players. So it's accountability, it's keeping possession of the ball, being smart on the ball, knowing where Henry is at all times and knowing where Cahill is, and finishing our opportunities, I think that's the big thing. I think if we can score early, score first, we should be fine."
Given the numbers, the Dynamo would be more than happy if playoff history repeats itself on Sunday.
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.