Houston Dynamo face their toughest test yet as they travel to unbeaten Vancouver Whitecaps
A confident Dynamo travel to Canada this week bidding to end March in the same dominant manner that they started it, but Saturday evening's game against the Vancouver Whitecaps could be the toughest test of the season so far.
The Dynamo stood idle last weekend yet remain at the head of the Eastern Conference as one of three teams with six points from two games. Vancouver are one of four unbeaten teams in the West, with one win and two draws from three fixtures.
Their victory came on the opening weekend in some style, as last year's Supporters Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls, were dispatched 4-1 on B.C. Place's artificial turf.
"Vancouver's a tough place to play. The atmosphere's different, you don't have your twelfth man behind you. I think it's going to be a good test of our character so hopefully we can get over there and make sure we put in a good performance," said defender Kofi Sarkodie.
The target for the defense, of course, is to keep a third clean sheet—and leave the rest of the job up to an attack which mustered an impressive 33 shots in its first two matches. "The reality is if we can do that we put ourselves and our team in a good position," said Sarkodie. "If we can do that I'm sure that with the way the forwards are playing right now we're going to be able to [grab] a goal."
The Whitecaps did not score last weekend in a 0-0 draw away to the New England Revolution, who were beaten 4-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium in the Dynamo's first MLS match of 2014. But they have pace going forward with Darren Mattocks and the highly-rated teenager, Kekuta Manneh, who has been used as a substitute so far this year.
"Mattocks is a fast guy, I've know Mattocks for some time. As long as we stick together as a back line as we've been doing and just kind of eliminate space in behind, I think we can nullify them throughout the match," said Sarkodie.
"We don't want to give him 40 yards of space in behind where he can run, that's where he's dangerous. If he only has 10 yards, that's a big difference. So that's what we need to make sure we do."
Head coach Dominic Kinnear is wary of Vancouver's potential. "A great home game for them and then they really grind it out with two road results—they're playing good, they have a good squad and they can attack you different ways," he said.
"For us, we had two good games here at home. I think the one thing is not many goals being given up by both teams, that's why they're having such a good run. It's always difficult to go there, I think they're a good team and it's going to be a tough game."
Three players who will not be in the squad are Anthony Arena, Jason Johnson and Bryan Salazar, who are being sent to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the Dynamo's USL PRO affiliate, on loan. The trio are expected to be available to face future MLS club Orlando City on Saturday in Pittsburgh's season opener.
Kinnear said the decision was made to give the trio some competitive action. "Just getting some minutes, that's it. There's no reserve league any more so those guys are going to get some minutes," he said.
None of the trio featured in the first two games of this season. Johnson saw the most first team action of the three last year, making 13 MLS regular season appearances (scoring once) and also coming off the bench in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final.
Last year, midfielder Brian Ownby impressed on loan to another third-tier club, the Richmond Kickers. On his return to Houston he made three MLS substitute appearances in September and also came off the bench in the 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact earlier this month.
"It's all about the player and the attitude they take," said Kinnear. "If they go with the right mindset they're going to get good benefit out of it. It's playing, it's a different type of pressure than just coming out to training all the time. There's consequences behind mistakes on a [minute by minute] basis which is what I think the players need at times. And the more minutes they play the better players they become."
The players can be quickly recalled if necessary—if the Dynamo suffer a raft of injuries, for example. "It would be wonderful if we could let these guys go there and play for long periods of time but I'm sure there's going to be some opportunities along the way, come summertime or whatever, when we'll need these guys to come back and play," said Kinnear.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.