After two wins in three games firmly restored the Dynamo to the playoff conversation, the players are looking at the standings and seeing a big opportunity.
The Eastern Conference table has not made happy reading for Houston lately but this weekend gives the team another chance to inch closer to the top half. Buoyed by last Friday’s 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union, the Dynamo travel to face the Columbus Crew on Saturday (6:30 p.m. CT; CSN Plus/Telemundo) knowing that another three points would be a huge boost to their postseason ambitions.
The Crew are fourth, five points ahead of Houston having played a game more. While leaders Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United have pulled away from the pack, only seven points separate Toronto FC in third and the Chicago Fire in ninth.
The Dynamo will head to Ohio believing that with the standings so condensed, a little momentum in the coming weeks will go a long way. The team are far from where they want to be, but when they look at the numbers they can see that a path to the playoffs is still open.
“I think now, especially with the win over Philly, we look again, we say: 'wow, we have the opportunity to jump right back in the mix, we’re not far off',” defender Kofi Sarkodie told reporters.
“There’s really about four or five teams right in a short little mix. A couple of points here and there and all of a sudden maybe you find yourself in third place. It’s definitely going to be a [challenging] little stretch here for us, but we’ve got a strong team, we’ve got a strong depth now and I think we’re going to be able to make a good run at it.”
The Dynamo’s goal differential is far worse than their playoff rivals, but that is not the first tiebreaker separating teams that are level on points. Wins are most important, and with seven, Houston currently have as many victories as Columbus and one more than the New York Red Bulls, who are in fifth place in the standings.
The renewed confidence around the team was palpable at Houston Sports Park on Tuesday. The win over the Union came on the heels of a largely-solid performance in defeat to the Seattle Sounders and a convincing display in a last-gasp win over D.C. at BBVA Compass Stadium on August 3 which snapped a long winless streak and marked the debuts of DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido.
“We have a little bit of momentum building, we’re looking to push that forward,” said goalkeeper Tally Hall. “I want to win every single game we have left, that’s our goal. It’s highly unlikely, but the simple fact is, I look at every single game and think: we can win that game.”
Head coach Dominic Kinnear said that his players have raised their levels, as seems to be the case with the Dynamo every year when the finish line is in sight. “We’re playing well, a lot of guys are playing better individually, as a team we’re playing better,” he said. “Guys understand the urgency of the situation we’re in and how a good run of form can get us into a better place than what we are.”
The notion that players only ever think about the next game — taking matches one at a time and not analyzing the bigger picture — has become an ingrained soccer cliché. But Hall said that down the stretch he starts to ponder the various permutations and possibilities as much as any fan would.
“First half of the season I step away from the standings, you kind of know in general where you are,” he said. “Second half of the season you can’t help but look at the standings, what people are doing, where people are going, who’s playing well and who’s not, you get wrapped in it. For us, we need to pay attention to what’s going on, but it’s getting to the exciting part of the year and I think this one’s going to be another close one.”
For Sarkodie, the cohesive performances so far this month have given the team an injection of self-belief and a timely reminder that when the Dynamo are at their best they are a match for any opponent. “The way we’re playing as of late, it’s like, yeah, we definitely can do this,” he said. “The teams that are ahead of us, we have an opportunity to go in and perform and play how we play and I think if we do that we’ll have some success and be able to jump up the table.”
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.