Grit and grind: Houston Dynamo tough out home win, look to stretch winning streak

Dynamo show their mettle: "We can fight, we can battle, and at the same time we can win"

Back-to-back wins secured in very different ways have the Dynamo feeling upbeat as they head into Sunday’s testing home game against Real Salt Lake (6 p.m. CT; TICKETS).

As in the opening fixtures of the year against the New England Revolution and the Montreal Impact, the Dynamo followed up a flamboyant four-goal win with a hard-fought 1-0 success.

Last weekend the team showcased its flair in a 4-1 crushing of Chivas USA that saw the Dynamo surge into a commanding lead before halftime. On Wednesday night against the Columbus Crew, Houston had to be patient, seize an opportunity then preserve their slender advantage with some stout defense.

Columbus had more shots and more possession, but Houston grabbed all the points—and tussling hard against a talented opponent, keeping a clean sheet and coming out on top is the kind of experience that can be as valuable and morale-boosting as a goal-laden victory. With many MLS sides closely-matched, grind is as important as glamor and mastering the art of the narrow victory is essential for teams with playoff ambitions.

“Different type of win today and I think a game like today when you’re battling, everyone was exhausted and they kept going and going and going and we were rewarded with three points, you put this one in the memory banks,” Tally Hall told reporters after the match. “All right, we can do this, we can fight, we can battle, and at the same time we can win.”

The goalkeeper made several outstanding saves to deny Columbus and maintain a lead gained through a Will Bruin header in the 50th minute. “I thought defensively against a very difficult team we did an amazing job staying organized, closing down spaces so there was not too many times that they were able to turn and go at us,” said Hall.

The victory propelled Houston above Columbus and towards the top of the condensed Eastern Conference as one of four teams on 14 points. It was the perfect way for the Dynamo to embark on a trio of fixtures at BBVA Compass Stadium. 

Next up are two sides also likely to provide a stern examination: two of the most storied clubs in the Western Conference. After RSL visit on Sunday, the Dynamo host the Los Angeles Galaxy on May 17.

“There’s a lot of confidence in and around the squad at the moment and we’re trying to keep the train rolling,” said forward Giles Barnes.

“I thought the guys put in a great effort all around to get the goal and protect the lead,” said head coach Dominic Kinnear. “Columbus made it tough. It’s a good team that passes the ball around really well and really challenges you but we were up to the challenge.”

As in the previous match at BBVA Compass Stadium, last month’s 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers, the Dynamo found the net when Bruin connected with a Brad Davis delivery from the left. Davis now has four assists and a goal in seven starts in 2014, placing him joint-second in the MLS individual assists chart behind Obafemi Martins of the Seattle Sounders.

Barnes hopes that Davis’s contributions earn him a spot on Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. World Cup roster. “It’d be great recognition for everything he’s done for us over the years. He’s been a consistent performer, he’s got as good a left foot as I’ve seen and from not just his delivery but his overall work rate he’s our leader, our captain,” he said. “He’s a great guy as well, he’s always talking to us on and off the field. For him to go would be brilliant.”

As for Bruin, his six goals in ten appearances place him joint-third in the early MLS golden boot race behind Seattle’s Clint Dempsey and Erick Torres of Chivas. His strike on Wednesday appeared to bump off his shoulder before it looped into the far corner of the net. But for Kinnear, that moment exemplified the 24-year-old’s desire and his goalscoring instincts. If there was a hint of luck involved, Bruin made his own good fortune.

“You see the way he attacked the ball, he was the only one in that pile [of players] that was rising up and attacking it well. You saw in the tempo of the first half there wasn’t going to be a ton of chances tonight, maybe off a mistake or off a set piece. That’s what we tell the guys, it could come down to a free kick or a corner, so let’s be clued in. And I think Will was definitely hungry enough to be the one who scored,” he said.

Bruin was substituted after 74 relentlessly energetic minutes on a hot and humid night. As well as his goalscoring, Hall believes that every time Bruin steps on the field he contributes a range of intangibles that make him a symbol of the Dynamo’s strong work ethic and team-first attitude.

“What he does off the ball, the way he works, the way he battles, the way he fights, he does a lot of things for this team that a box score, a stat sheet is never going to show, and that’s why he’s been a key player for us because he’s had that mentality since day one. There’s a reason he’s always there, because the team needs what he can give,” he said.

Mark Sherrod came off the bench as Bruin’s replacement to make his sixth MLS appearance. Sherrod and his fellow rookie AJ Cochran—starting at center back for the injured Jermaine Taylor—offered youthful enthusiasm but also mature performances that belied their inexperience. 

In his first start at BBVA Compass Stadium, Cochran helped the back line keep the Crew’s tricky attackers at bay. Though eagerly chasing his first MLS goal, Sherrod prioritized holding up the ball and keeping possession as the Dynamo sought to close out the match in the final minutes. In stoppage time he drove past defender Giancarlo Gonzalez and astutely set up Andrew Driver for a chance rather than shoot himself from an acute angle.

‘We didn’t know that Jermaine wasn’t going to play until after practice yesterday,” said Kinnear. “I pulled AJ aside and said ‘hey, you’re starting tomorrow’—he just said one word. He goes, ‘awesome’. It’s nice to see that kid in somebody. 

“He competes, he plays well and then with Mark you know exactly what you’re going to get. He’s probably playing more minutes than we thought he was going to when we drafted him but when he came on, fighting for balls, making sure there was no easy entry off of Tally’s clearances and whatever else and then obviously the hold-off play at the end, fighting that guy off, it’s priceless when you can have a guy that comes on and just does whatever he can for the team and has the awareness to work hard to get you a chance.”

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.