Houston Dynamo's fast start is slowed only by a bye week, but it's the finish that truly matters
It’s the first disappointing result the Dynamo have suffered all season: the third round of MLS fixtures starts on Saturday and Houston are watching, not playing.
It does not take a math genius to realize that in a 19-team league one side has to sit on the sidelines each week. Sadly for the Dynamo, the scheduling fates have decreed that their turn comes early in the campaign, when tiredness is not an issue, momentum is building and the players would rather be trying to add to a spotless (if brief) record that reads: played two, won two; scored five, conceded none.
At least the bye week gives Houston extra time to scout forthcoming opponents. The next two fixtures look like being serious tests: on the artificial turf of B.C. Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 29, then at home to FC Dallas in the Texas Derby on April 5 (TICKETS).
Vancouver are one of four Western Conference teams to have collected four points from their first two fixtures. They are away to the New England Revolution—who were beaten 4-0 by the Dynamo on opening day—in a Saturday lunchtime kickoff. Under new head coach Carl Robinson, the Canadians claimed one of the most eye-catching results of the first week: a 4-1 victory over last year’s Supporters Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls.
Speedy Jamaican striker Darren Mattocks scored for Vancouver at BBVA Compass Stadium in a 2-1 Dynamo win twelve months ago. He is yet to find the net this season but already has two assists, matching his total from 2012 and 2013 combined.
Dallas host unbeaten Chivas USA on Saturday night. Dallas have started brightly under new head coach Óscar Pareja, beating the Montreal Impact 3-2 then securing a 1-1 tie away to the reigning MLS champions, Sporting Kansas City.
The Dynamo are the only MLS team to have played two games and won both (The Columbus Crew and Toronto FC have played once and won). Even at this embryonic stage, Houston and Columbus are the only two MLS clubs yet to concede a goal.
It’s an ideal start that indicates the team’s potential and suggests the benefits of a stable offseason, but nothing more. Picking an eventual MLS champion on the basis of early performances is about as easy as filling in a perfect March Madness bracket. After all, it’s hard enough to make accurate predictions as late as the end of the regular season, since the format switches from league to cup and “home advantage” has often proved to be nothing of the sort.
The teams that finished top of the Eastern Conference in the regular season have not reached MLS Cup since 2008, when the Crew beat the Red Bulls. That year the Dynamo topped the Western Conference but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by New York. In eight seasons that have brought the team four Cup appearances and two wins, 2008 was the only time the Dynamo have won their division.
In the past decade, the team with the best MLS regular-season record has reached MLS Cup only three times. But only twice in the past ten years has there been an MLS Cup contested without at least one team that finished first or second in its conference. Dynamo fans won’t need reminding that in 2012, Houston (5th in East) lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy (4th in West). Of the 20 teams to contest MLS Cup between 2004 and 2013, 13 finished either first or second in their conference.
So the statistics are inconclusive, implying probabilities but not providing certainties. However, there’s a psychological benefit to collecting plenty of points early in the campaign, as striker Will Bruin told reporters after last week’s 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact: “At the end of the year it comes down to one or two points so if you can get your points early and get ahead of the game it’s easier to stay on top and not play catchup at the end.”
It makes sense: with the playoffs certain to be stressful and tiring, why make the process of reaching them exhausting and difficult as well, if you can avoid it? Securing a top-five spot before the last week of the season gives a coach the ability to rest his regulars, and finishing in the top three means avoiding the inconvenience of the single-match fourth- and fifth-place playoff.
Despite the early weekend off, this year’s schedule is potentially less of a strain than last season’s for the Dynamo, mainly due to the absence of CONCACAF Champions League duties.
Last year the Dynamo played six games in March—four in MLS and two in the CCL against Santos Laguna. A road defeat to FC Dallas followed only four days after a loss in Mexico. In the past two seasons, the Dynamo's record in MLS matches immediately following CCL fixtures is painful reading: played nine, won one, lost five, tied three.
This year Houston have only three fixtures in March. The U.S. Open Cup is not yet scheduled but May is currently the busiest month for the team, with six matches. That includes three successive home games, with Columbus and Western Conference powerhouses Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy the visitors. In contrast, last year there were five months in which the Dynamo played at least six games.
Not that it’s a light workload in 2014. After this weekend, the Dynamo won’t have another week without a fixture until the World Cup finals start in June.