It all began with a win over D.C. United, 240 days and 42 games ago. Another victory over D.C. on Sunday and the Dynamo know that a long campaign will be extended for at least a few days more.
Entering the final weekend of the MLS regular season the Dynamo were aware that to reach the playoffs they would need a result against D.C. (12:30 p.m. CT; NBC) and for one of the three Eastern Conference clubs immediately above them to slip up.
The second part of that equation was delivered on Saturday afternoon as Toronto FC surprisingly beat the Montreal Impact thanks to an early goal from Robert Earnshaw. That leaves the Impact in third place, one point clear of the Dynamo but holding the advantage on tiebreakers.
So the Dynamo’s future is back in their own grasp: beat D.C. and Houston are sure to finish above Montreal, and therefore in the top five.
The old foe, Sporting Kansas City, also helped the Dynamo out earlier on Saturday with a 2-1 road win over the seventh-placed Philadelphia Union that eliminated John Hackworth’s side from contention. That lifted SKC to the top of the Eastern Conference, two points clear of the New York Red Bulls, who host the Chicago Fire on Sunday afternoon.
The Dynamo came into the penultimate weekend of the regular season in third place and on a six-match unbeaten run, but defeat to the Red Bulls and wins for the New England Revolution, Montreal and Chicago suddenly left last year’s MLS Cup runners-up outside the top five. Yet there is still a chance the Dynamo can finish third.
“I think we still feel as a team we can beat anyone. We had a blip against New York but we’ve put it behind us and we know what’s required for Sunday,” forward Giles Barnes told HoustonDynamo.com on Saturday shortly before the squad left for the nation’s capital. “Everyone knows what they need to do, everyone’s feeling very positive and very focused towards what we need to achieve.”
D.C. beat Real Salt Lake on Oct. 1 to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, but they are on an eleven-game winless streak in MLS that stretches back to Aug. 10. Ben Olsen’s side have the worst record in the league, though they have only lost one of their past four home games. And playing mostly for pride they should not feel any tension. Toronto’s first-half dominance over Montreal at BMO Field underlined just how dangerous lowly teams can be when facing contenders.
“For sure, that’s one thing you’ve got to be wary of. They’re under no pressure, apart from to get another win to maybe not make their season look so bad,” said Barnes. “When you’re playing with freedom certain things happen for you. Different expression, different way of playing. It can work either way—they can either come out flying or they can do what they want, thinking it’s the last game of the season. Whichever D.C. turns up, we’ll just have to deal with.”
Other results mean everything and nothing to the Dynamo. While even a draw would be good enough if New England lose to the Columbus Crew, the team is concentrating on its own 90 minutes.
“We probably need to win. There is that reality of if we do get a point we could qualify for the playoffs. But to really put more odds in your favor you need to win the game. But we’d do the same thing in the fifteenth week of the season if we were going to D.C.—we’re going there to win the game,” said Kinnear.
“I know Ben pretty well, he’s a good person, he’s a competitive guy, he’s not going to go out there and help us, he’s going to go out there and try to win the game because it’s his job to try and get positive results for his club.
“We’re expecting a tough game. You can’t walk out there and expect it’s going to be easy. These guys showed [when losing 1-0 to] Kansas City last week they’re capable of opening you up and creating chances and being defensively pretty strong. At times, though, Kansas City had some chances too.”
Houston have already played at RFK Stadium this season—claiming a thumping 4-0 win in May that is their biggest road victory of the campaign. That followed a 2-0 success for the Men in Orange at BBVA Compass Stadium on 2013’s opening weekend. Houston have emerged victorious in the past four regular-season meetings between the clubs, as well as knocking D.C. out of the playoffs last year, 4-2 on aggregate over two legs.
There could be an anxious and lengthy wait to discover Houston’s final place in the standings, even if they secure a top-five position. Chicago and New England kick off after the scheduled end of the game at RFK Stadium. The teams who end up fourth and fifth will contest a one-match playoff on Oct. 30 or 31.
“We’ll be paying attention to what’s going on. But we’re not going to D.C. to watch TVs, to scoreboard watch, to sit down and hope something goes our way. The most important thing is preparing the team to win the game. And we’ll see what happens all around us after that,” said Kinnear.
“You always step on the field with the right mentality, and that’s to win the game. You have to play hard on both sides of the ball from the first whistle. You can’t control what’s happened in the past, you can’t control what’s happening that day, you can only control how you approach the game and how you play and that’s the message that we’re sending to these guys every minute.”
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.