Mike Chabala knows how hard underdogs can bite. The Dynamo defender was with the Portland Timbers last year when they fell victim to one of the great Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup shocks, losing at home to Cal FC, an amateur team then coached by former U.S. forward Eric Wynalda.
Chabala is determined the Dynamo will avoid the same fate tonight as they host FC Tucson at BBVA Compass Stadium in an Open Cup third-round tie (7:30 p.m. CT, HoustonDynamo.com stream). Tucson are a semi-pro side from the USL Premier Development League and it's certain they will relish playing at the home of a top MLS club.
"For a few of these teams it's like the World Cup. Anybody can win on the day and if you don't bring the right attitude, if you don't approach the game like any other then you set yourself up to be disappointed," Chabala told HoustonDynamo.com.
Last night's matches already brought surprises and near-misses, underlining the tournament's potential for drama. Orlando City stunned the Colorado Rapids, 3-1; the Charleston Battery ditched the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0; and D.C. United needed a penalty shoot-out win to sneak past the Richmond Kickers. Real Salt Lake narrowly avoided an upset against the Atlanta Silverbacks, prevailing 3-2 after extra time.
No such stress for FC Dallas, who defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, 2-0. That means a Dynamo victory this evening guarantees a second Texas derby of the season in Frisco and an opportunity for some orange revenge after Dallas' controversial last-gasp 3-2 win in MLS two months ago.
Tonight's is a bonus home game that comes amid a long stretch without an MLS fixture at BBVA Compass Stadium - the next is not until June 22, when Toronto FC are the visitors (TICKETS). The Houston line-up will be an intriguing blend of promising youngsters and veterans.
Player-coach Brian Ching, the club's all-time leading scorer, is set to make his first start since last October. First-choice center back Bobby Boswell could feature as he is in the middle of a two-game suspension from MLS action that will see him sit out Saturday's visit to Columbus. And Chabala is ready for his first start since he re-joined the club in February.
"Some young guys are going to be able to get a run and there's a lot of quality, a lot of guys who've been on loan who are coming back who've been training very well on the sidelines, focusing on opportunities like reserve games and Open Cup," he said.
"I think we'll put out a good side that's going to be competitive and hungry to start off on the right foot in this tournament and give ourselves the best chance of winning a cup. Any time you have an opportunity to win a trophy you want to make sure that you do your best to try and do that."
Chabala logged his first minutes of the season in last Sunday's encouraging 1-1 draw away to Sporting Kansas City. He replaced Corey Ashe at half-time after the unlucky left back came off with an injury that forced him to pull out of this week's U.S. national team training camp.
"With that makeshift back line we were putting out there with both Jermaine [Taylor] and Bobby being out and Corey coming out as well I think the guys did well and that's testament to our depth on this team and the quality that's in the locker-room," said Chabala.
"It was nice to get back on the pitch, I'm all smiles and happy to be back in the hunt of it. It was disappointing to concede a goal there in the second half but I thought we played extremely well and coming off of a tough couple of results it was a good place to start moving us back in the right direction against a good team that's pretty good at home."
The 29-year-old from Fresno, CA, is delighted to be back in Texas. He was selected by the Dynamo in the SuperDraft in 2006, the club's inaugural season, and played regularly in 2009 and 2010. Two years ago he was traded in midseason to Portland, along with Lovel Palmer, in exchange for midfielder Adam Moffat and allocation money.
Chabala started 13 MLS games for the Timbers in 2011 and also got to demonstrate his ability with his hands as well as his feet.
He was traded to D.C. United in 2012 and returned to Houston this year. He earned a deal after training with the club, fitting the bill perfectly as head coach Dominic Kinnear sought a reliable back-up for Ashe.
"I didn't expect the transition to be so easy coming back. There was a bit of nerves coming back in and trying to grab a contract and coming back into such a successful club over the past two years," said Chabala.
"Fortunately I just saw myself where I kind of left off and I think that's contributed by the guys in the locker room. I work with some of the best guys in the league, very humble individuals and I think that also speaks to the coaching staff as well. Having that relationship with them, mutually respectful, makes it a really productive environment to operate every single day and especially when you're extremely happy off the field which I am. I really do enjoy the city of Houston, the fans - it just makes a perfect storm for success."
A lot had changed in the 20 months Chabala was away. Both the roster and the infrastructure were upgraded. "The stadium and the training facility, the weights facility, the showers, the pitches, the whole deal. Those are the best in the country, it just makes coming to work every single day that much better," he said.
"It's really been a great experience and something that I've been very blessed and thankful for, coming back to Houston. I just feel like I'm in the best situation to be successful at this moment in my career. Obviously I'd love to be in a starting role and playing and I do think I have that ability but I'm where I am, I'm happy where I am giving depth and cover to an already solid back line. They're all capable, all national-team caliber players. Right now I'm happy and I couldn't ask for a better situation."
Tonight's task: give everything on his return to first-team action in Houston and make sure he is smiling at the final whistle.