Before the season you would have got long odds that the Dynamo's Giles Barnes would have more headed goals by now than Chris Wondolowski, Kenny Miller and Kenny Cooper, to name three strikers admired for their close-range scoring ability.
With three headed goals in MLS, Barnes is in a group of eight players behind only Tim Cahill (seven) and Eddie Johnson (four). The Englishman scored with his head in last week's 5-1 rout of Chivas USA and is hoping to be a threat in front of goal again on Saturday night when the Dynamo visit the New England Revolution in a crucial contest between Eastern Conference play-off rivals (6:30 p.m. CT; CSN Plus).
Barnes also scored with a confident low finish when put clean through on the Chivas goalkeeper, Dan Kennedy, to take his tally for the season to a team-leading eight in MLS, one ahead of Will Bruin. The 25-year-old is in double figures for the year since he also found the net with excellent strikes against FC Tucson in the U.S. Open Cup and against Stoke City in the BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup.
His previous best goal haul came when he was a teenage prodigy in 2006-07 and scored eight times in all competitions for English second-division club Derby County.
Having been a winger or attacking midfielder for most of his career, Barnes's performances and production have fully justified the decision of Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear to use him as a central forward. To some extent it was a move forced by circumstances at the start of the season, as new signing Omar Cummings had not recovered from knee surgery.
But Barnes seized the opportunity, and his aerial prowess is a valuable bonus for the team considering that Barnes is best-known as a playmaker with a penchant for the spectacular who likes to run from deep with the ball at his feet.
At his previous club, Doncaster Rovers, he was even deployed as a defensive midfielder. But he loves getting forward and testing goalkeepers rather than simply being a provider.
"It's a transition from delivering the ball to attacking it," he told HoustonDynamo.com. "I'm enjoying it. It's more scoring, more creating. I was looking to add more goals to my game … I've never really been in those positions before."
According to Opta, Barnes has taken 60 shots in MLS this year—eleventh-most in the league and only nine fewer than Wondolowski, last year's runaway Golden Boot and MVP winner. And when Barnes is looking like he might score, that's good news for Houston—as they are 5-0-1 this year when the former English Premier League man hits the net.
Winning breeds confidence, as does fitness. "Having everyone healthy helps. We've had to play people out of position numerous times," said Barnes. "[Kinnear] gets to play the team that he feels is the best on the day."
The Dynamo arrive in New England on a three-game winning streak in all competitions and looking to put more daylight between them and Jay Heaps' side. Houston have a three-point lead on the Revolution, who occupy the fifth and final playoff spot with five games left. After Saturday's test, the Dynamo return home to host the Montreal Impact next Friday.
Both games between the Revolution and the Dynamo this year have been close, fractious encounters. New England drew first blood with a 2-0 win at BBVA Compass Stadium in May, but the Orange struck back with a 2-1 victory at Gillette Stadium two months later that featured an all-time great goal from Adam Moffat.
After enduring a three-game winless streak, New England returned to the East's top five last weekend courtesy of a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over bottom club D.C. United. Their talented striker, Juan Agudelo, missed that match through injury, but he might return on Saturday.
"We just focus on our game. We feel it's been clicking quite well recently," said Barnes. "We'll be looking to give them a headache. They're a good team, they get the ball down and play. They've got good players all over the park—but I'm sure they'll be saying that about us."
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.