With 30 MLS fixtures in the books, the Dynamo are down to the final four. Fate has dealt Houston a challenging but tantalizing opportunity to gain ground on the teams above them: three successive home games, each against one of the Eastern Conference's top three clubs.
That trio of massive clashes begins on Friday when the Montreal Impact visit BBVA Compass Stadium (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS). A home win and the Dynamo leap over the Quebec club into third place. Dominic Kinnear's side would then be just a point behind Sporting Kansas City, who are second and do not play until Saturday.
Looking below, the chasing pack just got larger: the Columbus Crew, who appeared out of playoff contention only a couple of weeks ago, are now firmly back in the hunt after their 4-2 win over FC Dallas last Sunday.
With eight clubs battling for five places, it all adds up to one of the tightest and most exciting playoff battles for years, and the Dynamo are at the heart of it. Kinnear believes that his roster's experience will help them to handle the pressure—and maybe even enjoy it.
"They’ve been around, they’re not in awe, they’re not afraid to play or to play other teams. I think they have respect for every team around the league and for individuals, I think it’s a confident group. Obviously winning games and getting good results gives you a little bit more confidence but even though we had some bad ones I never thought it would blow us off course to where we couldn’t recover," said Kinnear.
Defeat to Montreal at Stade Saputo on August 24 briefly stalled the Dynamo's progress, as it was the first in a run of three losses in four MLS games. But since the 4-1 home reverse to the New York Red Bulls on September 8, Houston have won three matches and drawn one in all competitions.
Last Saturday, Houston emerged from Gillette Stadium with a 1-1 draw thanks to Will Bruin's thumping second-half equalizer. That preserved the three-point gap between the sides. Of course, no team wants to go behind. But Kinnear sees positives in the way the Dynamo immediately responded to adversity after conceding by changing the pattern of play and finding a necessary goal.
That refusal to fold seemed to indicate that the Dynamo have rediscovered their resilience, as well as their goalscoring touch, at a crucial moment in the campaign.
"I think just the way the goal was scored, a powerful strike—the guys responded in a powerful way. But I think the whole game they competed, never seemed to dip in their competitive attitude," said Kinnear.
"It gave you a little bit of a sense of pride when we scored. The guys walked off the field knowing it’s a hard place to play, it’s a good team, and to equalize like this always gives you a little bit of a bounce in your step. We weren’t throwing parties because it was a draw but it’s better than losing, that’s for sure."
Of the Dynamo's 44 points this season, 27 have been picked up at BBVA Compass Stadium. A home record of 8-3-3 is among the East's best, and only the Red Bulls have fewer home losses in 2013 (two). New York visit Houston on October 20, while Kansas City are here on October 9.
There is a sense of deja vu as Houston also embarked on three successive home fixtures at this point last year, having started 2012 with seven road games on the trot while the finishing touches were being applied to BBVA Compass Stadium. Two wins and a draw—against Montreal—secured the Dynamo's berth in the top five.
It's a scheduling quirk that Kinnear is happy to accept. "I think if you ask any team they’d rather play home than away. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win the games, but we’re more comfortable playing at home. But you look at the three teams we’re playing, they’re all above us in the standings and they’re all good teams," he said.
"[Looking at] the schedule you kind of go month by month, you knew it would come down probably to the last month—it may come down to the last weekend of the year."
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.