Dominic Kinnear has coached the Dynamo to two wins in four MLS Cup appearances and led the club to six conference finals in eight years. Yet one of his strongest and most inspiring memories is of 2010: the only season in franchise history that Houston did not reach the playoffs.
Kinnear and his players are driven by the pain of failure as well as the joy of success, the head coach said on Wednesday at a press conference held to reflect on the 2013 season, which ended last month with a 2-1 aggregate defeat to Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference Championship.
Seven of MLS's 19 teams have never reached MLS Cup and ten have never won it. But given the Dynamo's history—the standards that were set with two MLS Cups in its first two years in Houston—anything less than hoisting the Philip F. Anschutz trophy is inevitably going to be viewed as a disappointment, no matter what was achieved earlier in the season.
A winning tradition is passed down through generations of Dynamo rosters like a family heirloom. So the mood was bittersweet at BBVA Compass Stadium, as despite a 2013 that would be the envy of most MLS clubs, it is Kansas City who will face Real Salt Lake on Saturday in the final.
"Besides those numbers of great victories and championships there's a number one that sticks out for me, the year we did not make the playoffs, it happened once," said Kinnear. "And I think that for me is what drives you to be better. Because it's no fun watching other teams play this late in the season, it's not a treat at all and I'd be surprised if many of our team actually sit down and watch the game on Saturday because that's the competitive nature that they have."
Sitting to Kinnear's left, captain Brad Davis agreed. "Our guys are not satisfied till we win. We hold ourselves to a high standard, as Dom holds us to a high standard. We all do, that's obviously been a reason for our success. We set a goal and we don't like to come up short," he said.
Club president Chris Canetti pointed out that 2013 brought yet another conference final, a league-record home unbeaten streak, the franchise's 100th regular-season win and Davis notching his century of assists. And the against-the-odds extra-time victory over the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinal, which was voted Game of the Year in Monday's Dynamo Celebration, was one of the greatest wins in franchise history.
"Whenever you have an ultimate goal and you don't achieve it there's a little bit of disappointment. Of course, as always, we set out to win an MLS Cup and we fell just a little bit short this year. I think everybody within the organization feels a little bit of disappointment from that," Canetti said. "At the same time, when you're able to step back and look at everything from afar and you look at the body of work I think there's a whole bunch that we should be proud of from this season."
When Boniek García gave the Dynamo an early lead at Sporting Park last month, the team looked poised to reach its third successive MLS Cup.
That would have seemed like a remarkable achievement only a couple of weeks earlier, when Houston entered the final weekend of the regular-season sitting outside the playoff places and hoping for a win over D.C. United in tandem with higher teams dropping points. And with an in-form Red Bulls, who won the Supporters Shield and comfortably beat the Dynamo three times in the regular-season, lying in wait.
A combination of injuries and international call-ups meant Davis played in only 26 regular-season MLS fixtures, his fewest since 2008. Boniek García, who was outstanding in the playoffs, made just 21 regular-season starts. The Dynamo averaged 1.1 points per game when he did not start and 1.8 points when he did. And, of course, injuries meant Houston faced the second leg against SKC last month without a trio of mainstays: Will Bruin, Ricardo Clark and Jermaine Taylor.
The club will hope for better luck with injuries in 2014. The absence of CONCACAF Champions League soccer will ease the pressurized fixture list, though World Cup call-ups could temporarily weaken the squad in the summer.
Overall, though the sense of disappointment is keenly felt, that the team came so close to the title indicates there is no need for a radical overhaul during the winter.
"You want a good balance of young and old, I think we have that, I think we have some guys in their late twenties who are hitting the prime of their careers and we have some good young guys. You look at the impact that Kofi [Sarkodie] and Warren [Creavalle] and Will [Bruin] have had in our team this year, those are all guys that are 23, 24," said Kinnear.
"With the climate here it's tough to have an older team because it definitely can sap the strength out of you so you do need that good mix of young and old and it keeps things in the locker room a little bit fresh as well. The old cranky guys in the corner and the young guys playing the crummy music in the other corner," he said with a smile. "It's a good dynamic."
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.