Houston Dynamo's up-and-down form early on is trend shared across Major League Soccer
Even if they feel that recent results have not reflected performances, the bottom line is that the Dynamo visit the Philadelphia Union on Saturday (3 p.m. CT, CSN Plus) feeling the frustration of a three-match losing streak.
The hat-trick of defeats is a surprise after the Dynamo began the season with a pair of victories and because this is a veteran team that expects consistency and rarely experiences sustained disappointment.
Among last Saturday's starting lineup, only Tally Hall and Corey Ashe were at the club the last time it lost three MLS fixtures in a row, back in August-September 2010. It's a strange sensation, as striker Will Bruin admitted this week. For Bruin the key is not to let the losses affect the team's faith in its talent and tactics.
"It's been a weird month so far. Obviously you never like when you lose but we're still a group that we know we're a really good team and we're not going to stray from how we play just based on the ball going in the wrong side for us a few times," he said.
Houston could point to refereeing decisions and defensive miscues as explanations for how games that might easily have ended in a draw instead produced defeats, and why solid displays suddenly deteriorated. No matter what possession, passing and territorial advantage statistics may say, good results are achieved through the mastery of split-second moments at either end of the field. That efficient execution was evident in the Dynamo's two wins and lacking in their three losses.
The team did not put itself in a position to earn a slice of luck against New England last weekend. It did not record an official shot on target, though an 82nd-minute Ricardo Clark effort from long range was deflected and forced goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth into action. Some contrast to the opening day 4-0 win against the same opponents, when Houston put nine attempts on target.
"We started out really good the first ten minutes of that second half so I was pretty happy, thinking we were going to be all right," said Bruin. "Then our line slowly dropped, we started going deeper and deeper and there was a bigger gap between the midfielders and defense and between the forwards. So it was hard to get the ball into our feet, to get it out wide and go."
The Dynamo's scouting for their next two opponents came in a handy two-for-one package on Wednesday night as the New York Red Bulls beat Philadelphia 2-1 at Red Bull Arena. After facing the Union, Houston will stay in the northeast ahead of their game in New Jersey on April 23.
The loss stretched Philadelphia's winless streak to five games, three of them draws. The Dynamo are always introspective, preferring to take care of their own business without paying too much heed to rivals, but a glance across MLS suggests that few teams will be feeling entirely delighted with their starts to the campaign. You could call it inconsistency—or parity.
Underlining the league's unpredictability, Wednesday was the first victory of the season at the seventh attempt for New York, last year's Supporters Shield winners. "It was an interesting game, I thought both teams had swings of momentum and New York took advantage of theirs," said head coach Dominic Kinnear.
Every Eastern Conference club has lost at least once. Last year's MLS Cup runners-up, Real Salt Lake, are the only unbeaten team in MLS. Each side in the East has played between five and seven fixtures, but outcomes have been so variable that it is all but impossible to discern a pattern or trend. Among the league's 19 clubs, only the Dynamo and Toronto FC are yet to tie a match.
"I don't think anybody's out of the playoff chase just yet and no one's really streaking ahead. It's kind of funny but that's the way it goes. You maybe forget about last year but there were swings of momentum from teams last year too," said Kinnear.
"It raises an eyebrow that it was New York's first win of the year. It's always tough, there's not much between teams, it's just a little bit of luck here or a bounce there, or good play there, so when teams are down they can swing back up just from a little bit of something good happening."
Houston and Philadelphia met twice last year with the Dynamo coming out on top 1-0 each time thanks to a goal early in the second half from Clark. The 31-year-old has scored twice already this season but the Dynamo may be without his fellow midfielder, Brad Davis, who is listed as doubtful because of an ankle sprain on the official injury report.
Bruin hopes that Philadelphia's winless run will play on the minds of the home crowd. "Hopefully their fans put some pressure on them to perform and get a win and hopefully we can make it frustrating for them, that their fans might start to turn a little bit. But it's more [focusing on] us," he said. "We need a win now, that's the way we approach the game, every game is for three points, it doesn't matter who's on the other side of the field."
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.