This is what the Dynamo are built for. It's what they work towards from the first kick of every preseason: the pressure and drama of playoffs soccer.
As excitement mounts and stress levels rise with the awareness that one moment could determine the destiny of an entire year, Houston's veterans seem to get more comfortable, not less, when a 34-game marathon transforms into a six-match sprint.
There is nothing more exciting in sports than high-stakes, knockout soccer. And to players used to competing in the playoffs virtually every year, this stark world of glory or misery and nothing in-between feels like their natural habitat.
"This is the time of the year that we all tremendously enjoy, this is what it's all about. It's do or die, we like it when our back's against the wall, we tend to come out scratching and crawling and doing our best in that situation," said captain Brad Davis.
For Tally Hall, the playoffs symbolize a fresh start. "The regular season doesn't matter. What we wish we would have changed or could have won or should have won, or shouldn't have lost—whatever it is, it doesn't matter," the goalkeeper said. "We know that we've got a job to do and we're excited to be that Dynamo team that is known for postseason performances."
Houston host the Montreal Impact on Thursday (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) in the Eastern Conference knockout round, with the top-seeded New York Red Bulls awaiting the winner in a two-legged semifinal. The Dynamo secured their spot in the happy half of the standings with a 2-1 victory away to D.C. United last Sunday.
While the extra game is one more demand on the players' bodies after a long year, head coach Dominic Kinnear relishes the added excitement of a tie that will be settled on the night. "It kicks off the playoffs in the right fashion, which is 90 minutes of drama," he said.
Last year on the same date, October 31, as the fifth seed the Dynamo had to travel to Toyota Park and beat the Chicago Fire 2-1 with a goal in each half from Will Bruin. That set up a pair of clashes with Sporting Kansas City and was the start of a march to the MLS Cup final for the second season in a row.
The recollection of that run is a confidence booster now. "We were able to do it last year so we feel there's no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't be able to do it this year … it was the toughest assignment we've had as an organization but we still got there," said Davis.
"Everybody knows we've been in the situation many times and we can only use that to our benefit," said midfielder Ricardo Clark. "I think it's always an advantage to play at home, you don't have to deal with the travel and things like that, it's a little more comfortable so we're hoping that'll help us out. Everybody knows what time it is, it's a different vibe going into the playoffs."
While the Dynamo have made the postseason in all but one campaign since they started play in 2006, it is a new experience for the Impact, who joined MLS last year. But their memories of BBVA Compass Stadium are fresh: they visited earlier this month, losing 1-0 thanks to an early goal from Clark.
And they are a dangerous side on the counter-attack. "It's a sin to sit back and absorb pressure against them," said Kinnear, who added that he will look for his players to "maintain defensive pressure, especially in the midfield to cut off the supply line to Marco Di Vaio".
That means denying talented midfielders such as Felipe Martins, Nederland-born Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp the time and space to locate Di Vaio with passes. It's a smart strategy, since when he is on song and close to goal few defenses can keep the former Italy striker quiet.
The 37-year-old scored 20 times in the regular season, finishing third in the Golden Boot race behind Mike Magee and Camilo Sanvezzo. This year only the Fire had more shots on target than the Quebec club, who gave up the fewest fouls in MLS (the Dynamo committed the second-fewest). So it should be a free-flowing match.
Of course, Thursday is Halloween—so the club is hosting a trick-or-treat and a costume contest. "Hopefully the big treat after that is a Dynamo win," said Kinnear.
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.