Coming into a team after not playing regularly is always difficult. Coming into the first leg of an Eastern Conference Championship against a physical, aggressive opponent like Sporting Kansas City for your second start of the season? That's another story.
That is what Mike Chabala was faced with Saturday afternoon, and the Houston Dynamo left back acquitted himself well. Chabala saw just 158 minutes of MLS action for the Dynamo this season but was called upon to cover for the suspended Corey Ashe.
Matching up against breakout USMNT midfielder Graham Zusi, Chabala put in a strong shift—covering ground and helping to neutralize the Sporting creator in a scoreless draw. The Dynamo left back was one of several reserve players—a term head coach Dominic Kinnear and company avoid at all costs—that picked up the slack for a weary Dynamo squad.
"I thought Chabala played excellent," said the Dynamo's opposite fullback, Kofi Sarkodie. "He hasn't played much all year to be called into a big game. Kansas City is a good opponent, and I thought he did great. Graham Zusi couldn't find his way at all, and I give credit to Mike."
"He probably works harder than anybody in training," said head coach Dominic Kinnear. "You know it's never going to be a fitness problem; he's going to be ready to play."
Chabala answered the bell, but it was not all roses for the left back. There were times, especially early, that SKC picked on the left side of the Dynamo defense and found space. But as the game settled, and with the help of left midfielders Brad Davis and Andrew Driver, Chabala and Houston held up against one of MLS's best attackers. Chabala also added the element of the long-throw to Houston's game, something Houston has lacked since the exit of Geoff Cameron last summer, putting several balls in the box to pressure SKC.
"Training with these guys and being with them, there's a good standard," Chabala said. "Going from my last full match in Panama to this, it's night and day. I just get myself fired up and just contribute and keep it simple and do my job and help the guys in front of me. It really just comes down to everybody taking part and contributing."
Chabala was joined by Cam Weaver, Omar Cummings and even Eric Brunner—who has started the last six games in place of the injured Jermaine Taylor—as players who started less than 10 games in the regular season but helped the Dynamo secure a result that belied their fatigue.
Now the team will have two weeks to get healthy and retool. The watch will be on Ricardo Clark, who left the game in the first half with a left leg injury that Kinnear said he would know more about early this week, and Will Bruin, who exited at halftime and was wearing a protective boot on his left leg after the game.
If Houston's retooling and recuperation leads to second leg success, the play of several reserves last Saturday will be a big reason why.
"I think it's everybody," Kinnear said. "These guys are ready. We try and tell in preseason and during the season that you're going to get our chance to play, just be ready. These guys are professional enough that they are."
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com