The Dynamo returned to training on Wednesday with recuperation and anticipation on their minds.
A two-week break between fixtures is a strange experience for a squad that has become used to playing every couple of days as it has advanced deeper into the postseason, but the rest is welcome.
"When you look at our team right now I think we need it. At first you look at it like it's a bit weird but right now we almost look at it as a blessing because hopefully we can get some guys healthy," said striker Omar Cummings.
The Dynamo were back at work for the first time since last Saturday, shaking off a few aches and pains and turning their thoughts to the huge match that is slowly looming on the horizon. But Ricardo Clark and Will Bruin missed training with injuries and will be carefully watched ahead of the return leg of the Eastern Conference final at Sporting Park on November 23. Both players were substituted during the goalless draw against Sporting Kansas City at BBVA Compass Stadium last weekend.
That was the Dynamo's 47th match in 253 days in all competitions since the season kicked off with a win over D.C. United on March 2. It works out at a game every 5.4 days on average, but as the campaign climaxes the fixture list enters rush hour. The Sporting draw concluded a stretch of six matches in 17 days, three of them distant away trips.
Now, ahead of their biggest match of the year, the hiatus due to FIFA international dates means the Dynamo are partway through a two-week wait. It's their longest stretch of the season between games, wider than a 12-day gap in early April.
Last year there was a seven-day space between the legs of the Eastern Conference Championship, though a long duration between key dates isn't unknown to Houston's players, who had a wait of 13 days between the second leg aggregate win over D.C. and MLS Cup.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear said he is not making any radical alterations to the training schedule despite the unusual scenario. "Not really—we gave the guys good time off after the last game, I think they needed it and they definitely deserved it," he said.
"It's not ideal that it's this long but it's the way the schedule's set up. The good thing is that you're here asking me questions rather than looking forward to the offseason. It's a little bit odd going into the weekend not having a game but these guys know what they're doing and we'll just bring them along as we get closer to the game."
The winner of Houston's clash with Kansas City will face either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake, who meet at Jeld-Wen Field on November 24 with the Utah club holding a 4-2 advantage from the first leg. Kinnear said it is too early to judge whether Bruin and Clark will be fit for the trip north to the Sunflower State.
"We've still got some bangs and bruises from the game, I'm sure all four teams have some guys that aren't feeling so hot. We had to make a couple of substitutions and we're dealing with those guys, trying our best to give them as much rest to be available for the game, so we'll see how it goes. We'll see how they are as we get closer to the game," he said.
Center back Eric Brunner made nine starts in the regular season. In the absence of the injured Jermaine Taylor, the 27-year-old has started all four of the Dynamo's playoff matches and impressed last Saturday against Kansas City in what was one of the most physical and draining encounters of the year. He appreciated his time off.
"I relaxed, enjoyed the time with the family and dogs, so it was good. I think it's good to recharge the batteries a little bit, get your legs back after a long spell of playing," he said.
"It's fun to get back out here—the weather's a little chilly but it's probably a good lead-up to what we'll face weather-wise in Kansas City. I think we have a good attitude, every single day is a competition. Today was just kind of getting our legs back and getting touches of the ball, tomorrow we're going to open it up, I guess."
Though Brunner has played fewer minutes than many of his teammates, he says that feeling tired is a sign that he's doing his job properly. "Coming in just trying to help the guys and help the team, I'm leaving it all on the field every single game so I'm going to be exhausted after each game regardless of whether I've played all season or not," he said. "That's the mentality I come into games with: just leave it all on the field and no regrets."
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.