The Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls were close enough on the field last year that their playoff series needed an extra 30 minutes to be settled.
Fast forward to the start of 2014, and the teams are still pacing each other, albeit in surprising fashion.
The two playoff incumbents have experienced their share of struggles out of the gate this season, with Houston winless in their last four games and the Red Bulls failing to notch their first victory until their seventh game of the season just one week ago.
On Wednesday night, the two clubs will meet at Red Bull Arena (6:30 p.m. CT, CSN Houston), the site where their hard-fought playoff battle was decided almost six months ago. Instead of seeking passage to the Eastern Conference final, the clubs are now looking for a springboard to move past their surprisingly sub-par starts.
“We started off great but are going through some bumpy patches right now. They’ve had some bumpy patches as well, so our starts have kind of mirrored each other, and both teams are looking to turn things around,” Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com by phone Tuesday. “They’ve had some problems with their squad, and so do a lot of teams. It’s kind of the way the season’s worked out.”
In slumping to their current tie for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, the two clubs have been plagued by similar issues. Both have fallen prey to self-inflicted wounds, dropping points due to their own mistakes. They have both struggled to score goals at times and are dealing with the absences of key players, such as Brad Davis and Kofi Sarkodie on Houston’s side and Tim Cahill for the Red Bulls.
While Houston know all too well what the Red Bulls are going through, they are not taking the talented Supporters' Shield holders lightly.
“They have pace with [Lloyd] Sam and [Bradley] Wright-Phillips and obviously [Thierry] Henry, and we all know about him,” Kinnear said. “It’s a good, balanced team, and it makes it tough because there are more things to be wary of.”
A road win over New York could help the Dynamo shake off a surprisingly tough stretch of their own.
“By now, I think we’d hoped to have picked up more points,” Dynamo left back Corey Ashe told MLSsoccer.com. “I think after the game with Philly [last Saturday], we just created some good opportunities in the first half. We’re going to try and build off that and focus on New York.
"They have pretty much the same team as last year. So they have the partnerships around the field, the good understandings, and they’re the Supporters' Shield champs, and they can turn it on at any moment. Obviously we’re going to hope that it’s not against us.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.