Houston Dynamo draw upon mental toughness when bodies grow weary in postseason
Physical problems have dominated his year, yet after scoring his first Dynamo goal on Sunday, Omar Cummings preferred to focus on his mind rather than his body.
"It’s been very difficult physically but also mentally, you’re not getting the playing time that you’re used to. Your body’s just a vessel, really, your mind is what brings you - how focused you are, the way you think about the game, making runs, making plays, that type of thing," the striker said after his late equalizer gave the Dynamo a 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls at BBVA Compass Stadium.
The importance of mental strength is a recurring theme for the Dynamo as they head to Red Bull Arena for the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday night (7 p.m. CT; CSN Houston).
In Sunday's first leg, a couple of lapses gave New York a 2-0 lead after 32 minutes. Houston could have folded but regrouped and were stronger in the second half, pushing their opponents back and doing a better job of protecting Tally Hall's goal.
And when the Red Bulls made a pair of defensive errors—a poor clearance that led to a goal for Ricardo Clark, then a rash challenge that prompted a red card for defender Jamison Olave—the Dynamo profited. Cummings scrambled the ball over the line in stoppage time as the Dynamo made the most of their numerical advantage and grabbed a dramatic draw that brought the kind of euphoria normally associated with victory.
Pre-match, the key to the game was whether it would follow the same pattern as the regular-season meetings between the teams at BBVA Compass Stadium this year (two wins for the Red Bulls) or continue Houston's tradition of playoff excellence.
Ultimately, it did both. In the first half, a confident and cunning New York once again struck at the Dynamo with ruthless counter attacks. But after the break, Dominic Kinnear's side showed the spirit, precision and ferocity that has made Houston so hard to beat at this time of year.
"We never quit, at two goals down we didn’t give up and that was the biggest thing for me," said center back Bobby Boswell. And so the eleventh home playoff game in Dynamo history produced the first draw. The Dynamo's overall record now stands at a remarkable 9-1-1.
The Dynamo are two-time MLS Cup champions, in 2006 and 2007. At many sports franchises, 18 months ago would be ancient history, let alone six or seven years.
Every club pays tribute to the triumphs of past generations. But such has been Houston's continuity and stability that when many of the players, coaches and backroom staff refer to those titles, they are not discussing something they heard or read about, but experiences they actually lived through. The connection with those early title-winning teams is real and alive. It doesn't just inspire this current Dynamo squad, it's infused in their DNA.
"This team has two stars on their jerseys and we’ve fought through the playoffs the last two years to get to MLS Cup. So this is a group of guys that understands what it takes, and it takes full, 100% commitment on every single play, in every second from the time the whistle blows to the time the game is finished," said assistant coach Wade Barrett, a three-time MLS Cup winner as a player.
The Dynamo know that nothing less than total concentration and full intensity will do if they are to progress on Wednesday night against a side that has repeatedly shown it has the self-assurance and skill to punish mistakes. Mike Petke's team finished with 59 points from 34 regular-season fixtures, good enough for the best record in MLS.
"I’ll respect the hell out of them. Any time you win a Supporters' Shield, and I’ve been on Supporters’ Shield winning teams [with D.C. United], that’s impressive, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to play at that high a level all year. Hopefully it takes its toll," said Boswell.
"They’re dangerous, they’ve got great individual talent and they showed that for a good portion of the game but we’re not a pushover, we’re going to fight till the last whistle and that’s what you saw and we’re going to take that same mentality and go out and try to hit them where it hurts, at home."
At this point in the year, everyone's bodies are aching. But as Cummings said, fresh minds are everything.
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.