It is so tight in the Eastern Conference with just six games to go that the Dynamo could find themselves out of the playoff places at the end of Saturday night—or in the slipstream of the top three teams, poised to make a charge towards head of the standings.
Chivas USA's first-ever visit to BBVA Compass Stadium (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) is Houston's final fixture of the season against a Western foe and the Men in Orange are seeking to bank three points ahead of a critical series of clashes against Eastern rivals.
After Saturday's game, the Dynamo host W Connection in the CONCACAF Champions League next Wednesday. Then come the New England Revolution, Montreal Impact and Sporting Kansas City.
Chivas last played in Houston in June, 2011—a 2-1 win for the Dynamo. The Dynamo's home record against the Goats is outstanding: seven wins, no defeats, two draws; 18 goals for and only two against.
But Chivas's performances have perked up since former Guadalajara manager José Luis Real replaced the quirky José Luis "El Chelís" Sánchez Solá as head coach in June.
Much of the credit goes to Erick "Cubo" Torres, the 20-year-old striker on loan from Chivas' parent club, Guadalajara. He is among the most in-form players in MLS, with seven goals in ten starts. And the vastly-experienced former U.S. national team captain, defender Carlos Bocanegra, joined in July to help steady the back line.
After seven straight MLS losses in May and June effectively ended their playoff aspirations, Chivas have regrouped lately and won two, drawn two and lost one of their past five games. Last Saturday they secured an impressive 1-1 tie with the Portland Timbers and could have taken all the points. Teams playing without the pressure of a playoff bid often perform with freedom and have the potential to cause upsets.
"Chivas aren't coming here just to make up the numbers, they've been playing pretty well, and for us it's important that we step on the field in all seriousness and play hard for 90 minutes," said Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear.
For an up-to-date scouting report, just ask new Dynamo midfielder Servando Carrasco. He played for the Seattle Sounders against Chivas three times this season, including the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 win on September 4.
"I think they've made tremendous strides. They're a team that likes to posses the ball, they have that Latin flair, they have guys that work also, so it's a good team and they've surprised teams," said Carrasco.
"It's a team that's made huge changes to their style of play, to their personnel. Bringing in Bocanegra gives them that experience in the back. Switching to four at the back is huge too, you saw what happened when they played three at the back, they were exploited time and time again. They have great players that can punish you. Torres is a goalscorer, he's a poacher and you've got to keep an eye on him at all times. They're a team that we can't take lightly."
Kinnear has rarely, if ever, had a fully-fit roster this season. But this weekend he might enjoy the luxury of a selection dilemma as the squad is growing healthier.
Corey Ashe and Tyler Deric are set to be available while Eric Brunner and Andrew Driver are listed as "questionable" on the latest injury report, as is Calen Carr—though Brian Ownby will be missing with a sprained knee. Boniek García is back after missing the past three matches through international duty and suspension. And Omar Cummings came on as a late substitute in last Saturday's win at PPL Park for his first action with the first team in two months.
That's the bodies—how about the minds? "Walking off the field in Philadelphia guys were in great spirits and training's been good this week. The guys know it's an important time of the season," said Kinnear. The target now is to channel that confidence into a dominant performance on Saturday and build momentum as the season reaches its climax. Every match matters.
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.