Brian Ching has been here before. To be exact, he has been here 19 times before. When Ching takes the field for the Houston Dynamo on Thursday, in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia Union, it will be his 20th career MLS Cup playoff game, his 14th as a member of the Dynamo.
“I didn’t even know I have played in that many playoff games,” the 33-yeard old forward said when told of his achievement. “The playoffs are fun. It’s a time when you want to be the person that makes the difference and help your team win. You know every game is important, every moment is important. You have to concentrate, because any mistake can cost you your season.“
Over the course of his 10-year career, few players have been more productive in the postseason than Ching. His seven career playoff goals rank second among active players and tied for 11th all-time. More impressive than the fact that he has scored seven times in his playoff career is that each goal has come at an opportune time and helped propel his club to victory.
When asked to recall some of his favorite playoff memories at Robertson Stadium, Ching laughs, and with a smile says, “Pretty much all of my goals at home in the playoffs have been extremely memorable.”
He recounts the extra-time goal against Chivas USA in the 2006 Western Conference semifinals, as well as his overtime goal against FC Dallas a year later that put Houston ahead in the conference semifinal series in front of a sold-out Robertson Stadium crowd.
“I can almost remember each goal to a 'T,'” he said. “Just the reaction that our team has, and the reaction the fans have, and the amount of noise that erupts after we score a goal here; it’s all memorable.”
Although Ching is known for his ability to score clutch goals, he is equally adept at holding the ball in traffic and finding his open teammates. That was evident last weekend, when he picked up a headed pass from teammate Calen Carr, turned to his right, and with his left foot threaded a through ball to Carr, who beat Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon for what proved to be the game-winner.
"It's a lot better to be on this side of things," said Carr who before this season played against Ching as a member of the Chicago Fire. "I have played against him in games where he has just taken over. It's been great to play with a player of his experience."
According to MLSsoccer.com writer Elijah Miller, the Dynamo are the youngest team to qualify for the 2011 playoffs, with an average age of 26.51 in the regular season. At 33 years old, Ching is the only starter on the Dynamo older than 30 – although midfielder Brad Davis will turn 30 on November 8. Ching believes that although the team might be young, collectively, it is full of experience, and even the younger players are battle-tested heading into these playoffs.
“If you look at the last few games we played, these were almost playoffs games for us,” he said. “They were all must-win games, and we approached them that way. I think the guys grew a lot from that, and hopefully we continue to grow as the playoffs go on.”
For the past eight seasons, head coach Dominic Kinnear has had the good fortune of having Ching on his squad. The two were first united in San Jose, when the Earthquakes selected Ching in the 2003 Supplemental Draft. At that time, Kinnear was in his third year as an assistant coach for San Jose under Frank Yallop. The following year, Kinnear took over for Yallop, and two years later, Kinnear, Ching, and the rest of the squad were packing their bags and moving to Houston. Kinnear appreciates what Ching has brought to his squads, and it was no surprise that Ching was given the captain’s armband after Wade Barrett retired prior to the 2010 season.
“He knows the game well,” Kinnear said of his veteran forward. “He understands what he needs to do when he is on the field. The one thing he doesn’t get enough credit for is the way he plays defense when we turn the ball over. He chases the ball down time and time again. Going forward, I think he understands that to be productive, he relies on other people’s service, but he puts himself in good position to make himself available.”
Although Ching has made a name for himself as one of the most feared players in MLS, no one will ever confuse the six-foot-one-inch forward for Cristiano Ronaldo. He doesn’t have the speed of Lionel Messi or the skill of Xavi, but what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in toughness and determination.
In 2001, the LA Galaxy took Ching as the 16th pick in the MLS SuperDraft. After Ching scored one goal in eight games – and playing just six minutes in two playoff games – the Galaxy released the Hawaiian forward. While most players may have been content with the fact that they even had their shot in MLS, Ching was determined to get back to the highest level. After a standout 2002 season with the Seattle Sounders of the A-League, the Earthquakes brought Ching back to MLS.
“After that first year in LA, I was just hoping I would get back in the league,” he said. “It’s been a long road, but it's one that I look back on and I’m proud of. I feel like I have achieved a lot being not as skillful as some of the other guys. A lot of that is determination and hard work, and those attributes have helped me achieve some of the things I have, especially in the playoffs.”