No rest for the weary: Houston Dynamo have quick turnaround for semifinals against New York Red Bulls
It hardly seems fair. A performance that dominant deserves to be savored for at least a couple of days. But at this point in the playoffs reflection takes a back seat to action.
So the Dynamo were in training on Friday only 13 hours after claiming their place in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact in the knockout round.
And on Sunday afternoon it is back to BBVA Compass Stadium for the next obstacle on the course that leads to MLS Cup: the New York Red Bulls (2:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS). It's like fine dining on a fast-food timetable.
"It's a quick turnaround, we have to get our legs back as fast as we can," said defender Corey Ashe. The best cure for fatigue? Winning. Nothing puts a spring in a player's step quite like an impressive victory. Job satisfaction is the perfect medicine for weary minds, too. Look how often Tally Hall used the word "fun" after Thursday's match:
"Sometimes it's fun being a goalkeeper and watching the team in front of you put on a performance that I'll be able to look back on and think that it's fun being on the field playing with this team because of our team's [ability to put] together a game like that. It makes soccer fun, especially when you look around the field and think everyone's playing their best soccer of the year. It's fun being part of that. People expect more of you and the team has raised its game."
What should have been just about the most difficult and pressurized occasion of the year turned out to be one of the most enjoyable.
As in the 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire at the same stage last year, Will Bruin scored a goal in each half to take his tally to six goals in ten career playoffs appearances. The first was a thumping shot after a clever backheel from Ricardo Clark, the second a strong run and calm rounding of the goalkeeper to finish into the empty net. The 24-year-old is now in double figures for 2013. The busy Boniek García made it 2-0 with a first-half penalty kick.
"He took his goals great, his work off the ball as always was more than commendable and he took the second goal wonderfully, it was so cool," said head coach Dominic Kinnear of Bruin. "It's good to see him scoring goals. He got great enjoyment out of that second goal, it was one of those where he's been knocked down quite a lot all night, kept on plugging along and it was one of those like, 'you're not stopping me this time'."
While Montreal's main hope of a goal came from long passes over the top of the defense to striker Marco Di Vaio, the Dynamo looked capable of creating and scoring in a variety of styles and through a number of players. The Impact were restricted to only four shots on target, which were dealt with expertly by Hall.
The visitors' frustrations boiled over in the closing minutes and they finished the match with eight men after three red cards. "We tried to make it difficult and I think what you saw at the end was a reaction to us making it difficult, a full night of us being punishing for them and they took it out on us off the ball," said defender Bobby Boswell.
The Red Bulls should be a much tougher challenge. They ended the regular season with the best record in MLS and have beaten the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium twice this season, 4-1 in September and 3-0 in October. They are also more rested than Houston, not having played since they crushed the Chicago Fire 5-2 last Sunday to win the Supporters' Shield for the first time in the franchise's 18-year history.
But no team relishes meeting the Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium at this time of year, and in two-legged ties, tactical plans and precise execution often matter more than in one-off games, which can become desperate and chaotic. When postseason fixtures turn into chess matches, Kinnear has earned a reputation as an MLS grandmaster.
"New York's a great team, they won the Supporters' Shield for a reason, but at this point it's can we be the better team for 180 minutes?" said Boswell. After hosting New York on Sunday, the Dynamo travel to Red Bull Arena for the return leg on Wednesday (7 p.m CT; CSN Houston).
"The one thing about this group over the years—the attention to detail once the playoffs starts grows minute by minute, I think they prepare themselves very well to give them the best chance to be successful," said Kinnear.
As notable as what the Dynamo did against Montreal—lethal finishing, solid defending, control of possession and inventive attacking—was what did not happen. Unlike their opponents, Houston avoided lapses in concentration, did not commit careless errors, did not let up in their intensity.
For Boswell, the blueprint for Sunday is simply more of the same. "It's just continue to do what we did tonight, what made us successful in the past, you've got to cut out the mistakes. We'll watch some video of New York, from not only when we played them but their last game against Chicago where they scored a lot of goals," he said.
"We've got to make sure we lock it down, you can't give those guys a sniff because once they start scoring they're pretty dangerous. So it's going to take a full team effort and that's how these games are from this point on."