Wild two-week run results in yet another conference final appearance for Houston Dynamo
With less than an hour remaining in the regular season and the score locked at 1-1 in RFK Stadium it looked doubtful whether the Dynamo would reach the playoffs. Twelve days later, Dominic Kinnear's side stand only 180 minutes away from their third successive MLS Cup appearance.
Blocking the route is a familiar foe. The Dynamo host Sporting Kansas City at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday (1:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final. As Yogi Berra might have said: it's déjà vu all over again.
The Dynamo knocked SKC out of the playoffs in each of the past two years. In 2011 the conference finals were one-off matches and the Dynamo traveled to Sporting Park and produced an impressive 2-0 win thanks to second-half goals from Andre Hainault and Carlo Costly.
In last season's two-legged semifinals a stunning strike from Adam Moffat burst a tight game open and Will Bruin added another for a 2-0 Dynamo win. In the return fixture, Seth Sinovic—who scored an excellent goal against the New England Revolution on Wednesday—gave the home team a 64th minute lead on the night but the Dynamo then held firm for a 2-1 aggregate victory.
Peter Vermes' team earned some payback by ending the Dynamo's proud unbeaten home record with a 1-0 win at BBVA Compass Stadium in May. This year's two other league meetings were draws. But this is not the regular season, as was obvious from Houston's intrepid, gutsy and opportunistic victory over the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night.
SKC finished second in the Eastern Conference, a point behind New York, and had the best defensive record in MLS this year, conceding only 30 times in 34 league fixtures. "It's always a tough match against KC, they're a very physical team, very fit team, very good players. It's physicality, keep moving the ball, keep working them until they break down," said striker Omar Cummings, who scored the extra time winner against the Red Bulls.
"In the last couple of years the Houston Dynamo has gotten the edge on KC in the playoffs. If I'm in their shoes, I'm looking at it like, 'not again, not this time around.' So they're going to come here and fight, they're going to scratch, do everything they can to prevent us from doing that again. So we know that we have to be on our top game."
At this time of year, Houston usually are. "Once this team gets into the playoffs, any team we're playing against are going to be wary of us," added Cummings. "They're going to say, 'the Dynamo are in the playoffs and they mean business. They're a hardworking team, a team that never gives up and you can never say the Dynamo's out of the game until the last whistle is blown.'"
Houston recovered from deficits in both legs of the semifinal against New York. "Win at all costs, that's what we're in the business to do," said captain Brad Davis, who capitalized on a defensive error to score the equalizer on Wednesday.
"One of the questions I got asked after the game in New York was, 'New York seemed to be the better team, they seemed to be prepared, they had possession, blah blah blah.' What was the score? That's the only stat that matters. Do you want to play pretty and lose or do you want to play ugly sometimes and win? We're in the business of winning. That's what this team brings to the table each and every week.
"We're happy with where we're at right now but we're not satisfied until we win that championship. We know what it feels like to get there, guys love it and we just want to continue to get back there. It's about buying into a system, buying into the success that it has had, continuing to push forward and always wanting more."
Saturday's clash will be Houston's fifth game in two weeks, but this is a franchise built for the postseason bustle. "We prepare for the playoffs and build everything up to try and be a team that can win come playoffs time," said Dynamo president Chris Canetti.
"It has been a remarkable twelve days for our club and our fans, from getting into the playoffs on the last day of the season with a victory versus D.C. to doing what most people thought we couldn't do: beating New York on the road. It's really great and we now find ourselves in the conference finals again for the sixth time in eight years which I think is another remarkable thing.
"Houston versus Kansas City, we know it's going to be a grudge match, we know they'll be fighting for all they have to seek revenge against us, it should be fun. We'll have a great crowd on Saturday, hopefully we sell it out and it should be an awesome environment."
What's the recipe for consistent success? Canetti credits the head coach with building a roster that has a resilient, relentless mindset. "I think you have to start with Dominic, he's obviously been the central player in all this in terms of being the one person that's been here through thick and thin and the way he prepares the team both physically and mentally, he puts us in a position where we're ready for the playoffs and the guys know how to respond come playoff time.
"You look at the game the other night, we seemed to me to be the mentally-stronger team. We got criticized for the way we played by some but we got the result because of the toughness of the team, the mental tenacity that I think is characteristic of Dominic, that he instills in the players and they certainly carry it out on the field."
The Dynamo have become so known for their postseason prowess that it has become a defining part of the franchise's identity. After all, the team won MLS Cup in each of its first two years in Houston. And memorable matches like the pair against New York help shape the club's self-image and are assimilated into its mythology.
"We now have almost eight full years of history and the playoffs have provided the most memorable and spectacular moments for this club. And they've played a key role in helping us become a well-established club, a wel-established brand, in a very short space of time. It's helped us build a fanbase, if you will. So we recognize the value of these games and the memories they create," said Canetti.
"For example, if you were there at that New York game last week as a fan, you walked away with something you'll never forget, a great experience with a great comeback … these are moments that you can't match in the regular season. We're a club that really believes in the value of the playoffs and what they mean and what they can do for you."
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.