After beating the second-placed team in the Eastern Conference last Sunday, the Dynamo now face off against the best in the West in a showpiece event live on national television.
The trip to meet Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on Sunday (9:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2) is set to pitch the Dynamo against the likes of Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and DeAndre Yedlin in front of a crowd in excess of 60,000.
Houston are expecting a stiff challenge but captain Brad Davis believes that if the Dynamo are serious about making a run at the postseason the team must prove it can rise to this kind of occasion.
“If you want to win MLS Cup you’re going to have to play in difficult spots. If you want to be a championship team you’re going to have to beat all the good teams. You’re going to have to play the good teams, you’re going to have to play away from home and we’ve got to be able to figure out that part of the puzzle as a group,” he told reporters at Houston Sports Park.
“We don’t have an easy schedule the rest of the year. But if we want to really prove ourselves and be a championship team we’ve got to go to these places and be able to get results.”
This is the Dynamo’s ninth and last regular-season match this year against Western Conference opponents. After Sunday, Dominic Kinnear’s side will have twelve fixtures left, all against Eastern rivals, starting with the home game against the Philadelphia Union on August 15.
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Seattle have lost their past two games without scoring: 3-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy and then 1-0 to the San Jose Earthquakes. But Sigi Schmid’s team have plenty of firepower and have won seven of their ten MLS home matches in 2014, losing the other three. If Real Salt Lake beat D.C. United on Saturday night, the Sounders will slip to second in the standings.
“Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are a good one-two punch and I think Marco Pappa’s really settled into a nice season and Lamar Neagle kind of floats around and gives you problems. And at set pieces they’re good, Gonzalo Pineda and Osvaldo Alonso in the middle of the park are a good combination of bite and guile,” said Kinnear. “So it’s a good team, they have a good record as we all know and the reason is because they have a lot of good players.”
The Dynamo are wary of their opponents’ potential but should arrive in the Pacific Northwest in confident mood after last Sunday’s 1-0 win over D.C. ended a winless streak and also featured one of the tightest defensive displays of the year. Solid debuts by DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido added to the renewed sense of optimism around the club.
“It’s an opportunity to have two good results in a row against two of the best teams in the league and for us to move up the standings would be nice,” said goalkeeper Tally Hall, who also has personal reasons for looking forward to the trip. The 29-year-old was born in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb only 20 minutes drive from CenturyLink Field.
“It’s always good flying in and knowing some landmarks that you grew up looking at,” he said. Growing up in the area, Hall was inspired by prominent local goalkeepers such as former U.S. national team player Kasey Keller and Preston Burpo, a regular starter in the Sounders’ pre-MLS days who went on to play for sides including Chivas USA and the New England Revolution.
Keller was born in Washington state and spent most of his career in Europe, returning to the U.S. to play for Seattle in 2009, their first MLS season.
“Definitely Kasey Keller was my kind of go-to goalkeeping hero growing up,” said Hall. “Even Preston Burpo, I looked up to and it’s been fun seeing him in the league and also him still coaching … it brings met back to the games when I went to Sounders A-League action a couple of times. It was like, dude, you won championships for Seattle, I watched you growing up! And now I’m going back to Seattle and playing. It’s one of those cool, unique experiences for me.”
The Sounders’ average attendance is more than 40,000—nearly two times higher than the next-most watched club, Toronto FC. Hall says he is used to zoning out big crowds and developing a kind of tunnel vision that allows him to block out noise and sights in the stands and focus on what’s happening on the field.
“During the game it doesn’t really make that much of a difference, you try to be so clued in with the way the game’s going, what your team’s doing, where they’re dangerous. For me it could be 5,000 people [or 65,000]. Outside the lines kind of gets blurred out. At the end of the day if you’re playing in front of 65,000 people it’s something that’s pretty cool.”
Kinnear agrees. “It’s a great event there,” he said. “It’s not just a good game and a good team you’re playing against, overall it’s a great experience for the players and I think if you ask the guys on our team they always enjoy going there and playing, they enjoy the atmosphere and obviously the opponents are a big challenge too.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.