With two MLS Cups, another two final appearances and seven playoff tilts in eight years, the Dynamo’s postseason prowess has earned Dominic Kinnear a well-deserved reputation as one of the sharpest tacticians in MLS.
The head coach is an expert at navigating the end-of-year carnival that sees the league turn into a month-long cup tournament where matches are tight, split-second moments define entire seasons and every judgment call made from the touchline could be decisive.
As Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall neatly put it this week: "It’s the playoffs. It’s a strange, crazy, fantastic beast. It’s just different."
Wild matches with unpredictable outcomes are a huge part of the appeal of the MLS playoffs and for that matter any knock-out tournament. Yet the Dynamo have become famed and feared for their consistency.
Kinnear said ahead of Thursday night's playoff game against the Montreal Impact at BBVA Compass Stadium (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) that at this time of year he tries not to tamper with the routines he usually follows during the regular season. It's natural that the longest-tenured current MLS coach would value stability.
“For me, my approach is always the same: try to get [the players] as much information as possible about the opponent, try and keep the same schedule. Maybe the only thing we do, we go to dinner as a team at a certain restaurant—but that’s probably the only thing we do a little bit different,” he said.
So how to explain why the Dynamo seem to up their game when the curtain rises on the playoffs? After all, Houston reached last year's Cup despite being seeded fifth in the Eastern Conference. The club has made it to the MLS grand finale four times but only finished with the best regular season record in its conference once, in 2008.
Houston's a great culinary city, but it can't simply be the restaurant food. Maybe it's not just about what Kinnear does during the playoffs, but the work that has gone before: signing, developing, organizing and motivating players with the character and experience to excel when it matters most.
“It’s kind of funny to look at the playoffs and see how teams, how their personnel react and I think we have a good history of stepping up and saying OK, this is going to be the very best that I have. And it makes a big difference,” said Hall.
"These kind of games you can’t rely on eight people having a good game, you can’t rely on nine people having a good game. You need 11 guys out there having, I don’t want to say the best game of the season, but it needs to be close. You want to do something special in the postseason, you need everyone on the field being their best."
And that on-pitch spirit is made possible by off-field chemistry. "With this team when guys are playing their best it doesn’t turn into an individual thing. For me to say ‘playing like a team’ is almost redundant because when guys are playing their best they’re playing for their team and that’s what makes being a Dynamo player fun, because we really do have a great locker room, guys are fighting for each other," Hall added.
This is the Dynamo's eleventh playoff game in two years, dating back to a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in October 2011. Hall, Bobby Boswell and Corey Ashe have started each of the previous ten, with captain Brad Davis only missing out on the 2011 final through injury.
While this is the Impact’s MLS playoffs debut, the Dynamo beat the Chicago Fire in another one-off encounter this time last year. "I don’t look back at that Chicago game and say that game specifically will help us for this game. I think being in the playoffs and for the most part being a successful team in the playoffs helps us for this," said Hall.
"And guys who haven’t been a part of that, they’re going to have a whole bunch of people to model their behavior and the way we play, because we have gone through this and we know what it takes.”
The Impact beat the Dynamo twice at Stade Saputo this season but lost 1-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium on October 4. Marco Schällibaum’s side were longtime contenders for the top spot in the Eastern Conference but their form has declined in recent weeks, with only one win in their past eight MLS fixtures.
They lost 1-0 away to Toronto FC last Saturday, but clung on to fifth place thanks to the New York Red Bulls’ win over the Fire a day later. The Red Bulls will face the winner of this match on Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“It’s a chance for us to maybe send a message that we belong and we’re ready for New York, but we’re not really focused on anything other than Montreal. They’re a good team, they match up well with us, they’ve given us trouble over the last two years. This year homefield advantage has been the key so hopefully that stays true on Thursday night,” said Boswell.
The 30-year-old is set to partner Eric Brunner at the heart of the defense after Jermaine Taylor was ruled out for the rest of the campaign with a foot injury. Brunner and Boswell started last Sunday’s 2-1 win over D.C. United.
“He knows what he’s got to do and as a unit we know what we have to do,” said Boswell. “It’s not about one guy—there’s going to be guys in and out of all teams. So how can you adjust? And who can make the other team adjust more to them, I think, is the key to this game, not the people who are in or out.
“I’ve played with him in CONCACAF games, Open Cup games, things likes that so it’s not like this is going to be our first test. It’s something that we’ve done before and we’ll be fine.”
Like Kinnear, Boswell sees value in continuity. "At this point we’re a pretty experienced group, there aren’t going to be a lot of team talks about things that we haven’t talked about all year. I think the biggest thing with how close the playoff race was going into it is that a lot of people have been playing playoff soccer for a long time here, ourselves included," he said.
The supporters at BBVA Compass Stadium certainly know how to create a playoff atmosphere. “It was great that we took care of business in D.C. because now we get at least one more game in front of them to say 'thank you'," said Boswell. "I think that’s what makes it such a great place, our fans keep the house rocking and we usually show up and perform for them."
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.