Sunday's match at D.C. United (12:30 p.m. CT; NBC) is not the only do-or-die moment for the Houston Dynamo this week. Heading into their final group stage game in the CONCACAF Champions League, a road fixture at Panamanian club Arabe Unido (7 p.m. CT; Fox Soccer Plus), the Dynamo must win or draw to book a spot in their second consecutive quarterfinal appearance.
A win Thursday would likely mean a No. 5 seed for the Dynamo and a probable quarterfinal matchup with Tijuana (and MLS-killer Herculez Gomez, who helped lead Santos past Houston in this year's quarterfinals); a tie would see them earn a No. 7 seed and could pit them against either Cruz Azul or the LA Galaxy (a rematch of the last two MLS Cup finals), depending on Thursday night's other result.
While traveling abroad midweek is generally seen as a hassle for MLS teams, the trip to Panama could be exactly what the Dynamo need to sharpen their collective focus on the task at hand.
“If it was two home games, you could see where people would blur the week together,” said goalkeeper Tally Hall of keeping focus on Thursday’s task despite Sunday’s regular-season finale looming.
“Because we’re traveling to Panama, thanks to Mr. [Brad] Davis we’re going to be in a protective bubble,” Hall continued, alluding to lingering Panamanian resentment from its national team's elimination at the hands of Davis and the US squad. “When you’re in that kind of situation, you can’t help but focus solely on the game at hand. It’s a tournament, we’re not throwing this game away just to focus and get a win on Sunday.”
Maintaining their focus in multiple must-have games in a short period of time is a dress rehearsal of sorts for Houston's potential participation in the playoffs, which would likely require them to turn around and play a third game in eight days in the Knockout Round Oct. 30-31. With that compact schedule in mind, Davis and fellow World Cup qualifying participants Boniek García and Jermaine Taylor all stayed in Houston this week to rest up for Sunday's MLS match.
Down a few key players, Houston are focused on taking care of their CCL business. If it produces some momentum heading into the weekend, the club would gladly take it.
“It’s an important tournament for us, and it’s an important tournament for the league,” Hall said. “I think having a game and almost not being able to think about getting too wrapped up in the moment, we’re going to be able to bounce from one game to another game together as a team, united and focused on ourselves.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.