WASHINGTON – Perched on the podium in another team’s stadium for the second year in a row, his fourth trip to MLS Cup in seven seasons in the bag, Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear broke into a wide grin.
He then surveyed his exuberant team, one that snuck into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, with the kind of pride that only comes after weathering a season’s worth of trials and tribulations and emerging 90 minutes away from the ultimate goal.
Once again, the Dynamo way – the gritty, committed and, most importantly, effective brand of soccer Kinnear instills – came up trumps when it mattered most. Houston are going to MLS Cup for the second year in a row, and although they may not be built for the spotlight, they keep finding it year after year ahead of more fancied sides.
“I don’t think we’re the prettiest of teams. We’re not glamorous,” Kinnear said, clutching the Eastern Conference Championship trophy passed to him by one of his charges. “We don’t hoot and holler and talk about ourselves too much. We just go about our way.
"I wouldn’t say people overlook us – I think they respect us – but they don’t really see us in the vein of wonderful teams. If it comes down to results, four MLS Cups in seven years at the start of the franchise is pretty impressive.”
It certainly is, especially considering they took the longest possible path to MLS Cup, knocking off both top-seeded Kansas City and second-seeded D.C. United without the benefit of home-field advantage.
In both cases, Houston built a two-goal lead with a dominant performance in the opening home leg then put in a professional, and ultimately effective, performance on the road to move on.
And while they didn’t have a perfect day at RFK Stadium on Sunday, they followed their game plan without fail, snatching an early goal through Boniek García then frustrating United with a resolute backline and renewed commitment to keep hold of the ball that was lacking in Kansas City 12 days ago.
In the end, they drew on experience, tapping into lessons learned in the past and reinforced by veterans like Brian Ching, Brad Davis and Bobby Boswell, while Kinnear provided the steadying, unifying force and tactical guidance to bring it all together at the right time.
“Every time you play in these games, you gain more experience….It’s been kind of passed on from the older players,” Boswell said. “We’re having success. Last year we got to the final, and this year we’re back in the final. You learn on the fly.
“It’s like anything. The more you do it, the better you get at it. In big pressure games, you do them enough and you get better at it. You get better at managing stress and managing the mental side coming up to it. Honestly, we had fun out there.”
That enjoyment almost certainly comes from the knowledge that each and every player on the field is dedicated to accomplishing one thing – and accomplishing it as a group without pretense or the self-centric attitude that can sometimes pervade professional sports.
“Guys pick it up. … You either adapt or you don’t really fit in,” goalkeeper Tally Hall said. “It is what it is. Everyone does it so you don’t want to come into this team and be the odd man out. You kind of get it, and it takes a hold of you.”
“We’ve talked about hard work and dedication and commitment to the system that we play,” Davis added. “It’s been successful over the years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
And if his track record indicates anything, Kinnear definitely doesn’t have any designs on switching things up.
For the fourth time in seven seasons, Houston is rolling at the right time. And even though they face a final at another team’s home for the second straight year, they remain undaunted.
After all, they’ve already come this far. What’s another hurdle to a team that’s already cleared five this postseason?
“The only thing we knew was it was going to be difficult,” Kinnear said. “The one thing I said to the staff and to the guys was if there is a team that can get to the final in difficult circumstances, I felt this was the group that could do it. Luckily for me, they proved me right.”