Crew Stadium is a tricky venue for visiting teams but Eric Brunner should feel right at home when the Dynamo face the Columbus Crew on Saturday night.
The defender spent two years as a Crew player, grew up in a Columbus suburb and attended college at Ohio State, only two miles away from the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. He talks fondly about the region as a soccer hotbed that helped ignite his passion for the sport. But family reunions can wait until after the game: Brunner is fully focused on helping the Dynamo continue their strong recent run of form away from BBVA Compass Stadium.
The Dynamo have not lost on the road since a 2-0 reverse in Portland on April 6. The four-game run has included eye-catching wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C. United and ties with Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City.
A point from last Sunday's 1-1 draw at Sporting Park was the least a depleted Dynamo deserved for an impressive performance. After plenty of talk in the early months of the season about Houston's array of midfield options, the roster showed it has ample cover in defense, too.
Missing the suspended Bobby Boswell and the injured Jermaine Taylor, Brunner stepped in at center back and was partnered by Ricardo Clark, who is normally a midfielder. The duo held firm against one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference and Mike Chabala also did well after coming on at left back for Corey Ashe, who is questionable for tomorrow night's game with an adductor strain (6:30 p.m., CSN Plus/Mega TV).
"Last week we trained a little bit, just getting each other on the same page. And in the game we listened to each other, both talked, just worked really hard," Brunner said of his quick rapport with Clark.
The pair are set to reprise their roles in the heart of the Dynamo's back four again on Saturday. Dominic Kinnear's side is sure to be without Boswell, Taylor and international call-ups Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia for the club's third game in a week, following Sporting and Wednesday's 2-0 U.S. Open Cup win over FC Tucson at BBVA Compass Stadium.
"Everyone's stepping up. If their number's been called they've stepped up, played and put in a good shift and that's kind of what our mentality is," Brunner told HoustonDynamo.com. The 27-year-old has made six MLS appearances including three starts since he was acquired from the Portland Timbers last December.
"Dom's told us we're going to have our chances to play, everyone's making the most of them. International call-ups, injuries happen unfortunately, that's why we work really hard in training every day, so we can simulate game situations," he said.
Kinnear likes Brunner's attitude. "As we entered the season he knew he was going to get a chance to play and that's coming true. I think he stepped in and has been ready, his mind's been in the right spot which has helped every time he's stepped on the field," the head coach said.
After Saturday's game, goalkeeper Tally Hall will join up with the U.S. squad ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Jamaica on June 7. Hall sees the way Brunner and Clark held off Kansas City as a perfect example of the team's ability to produce results in adversity. "I think they worked great together against one of the best teams in the league. So there's something about this team that when our backs are against the wall we come together and say 'all right, we need good performances'. Guys come out and that's what they give," he said.
The Dynamo are winless in their past eight fixtures against Columbus and are without a victory at Crew Stadium since 2007. While Houston's long unbeaten home streak is over, the team is on track to produce a much-improved points tally on the road compared with the past two years.
"We've had a good spell on the road in the past month and we're going to go try and go out and continue that," said Brunner. "[Last Sunday's point] was huge. We just had that spell for a little bit where we weren't really getting results that we wanted, and to go into to KC - it's a tough place and I thought we had our chances to win the game, too. So it's good, we'll build off that and hopefully go forward with it."
After a topsy-turvy May saw three big away results but two home defeats, Hall believes it would be no great surprise if a galvanized and confident Dynamo pull off a long-awaited win against the Crew.
"That definitely has been something missing in the regular season for this team, to have a chance to get over that [road] hurdle," he said. "You look at Columbus, it's traditionally a team that - I don't know if we struggle against them or they're very good against us, I'm not sure which one it is - but they always seem to get the better of us. Maybe this is the year that we beat L.A., we end our [home] streak, we get to beat Columbus Crew."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.