The Dynamo are on a twin mission when they host the Montreal Impact at BBVA Compass Stadium tonight: atone for the past and shape the future.
This evening's game (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) is huge in itself, as with a win, Houston would leapfrog their opponents into third place in the Eastern Conference and edge closer to confirming a spot in the playoffs.
A Dynamo victory would also help to offset some of the frustration from the freakish 5-0 reverse at Stade Saputo in August. With seven points from their past three MLS games and a squad near full fitness, the Dynamo are confident that tonight's rematch will be a different story.
"The last game, getting beat by that many goals is still fresh in our mind. It's big in that regard, it's big that if we get a win we can jump them," said defender Corey Ashe. "I think the team's focused on trying to get that third-place spot. Now it's time that we help ourselves out, time that we get the win and get ourselves a playoff spot."
It won't be easy, as Montreal have MLS's frontrunner for the Golden Boot, Marco Di Vaio. Behind the 19-goal former Italy international is a talented midfield that includes Justin Mapp, Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud. The club's decision to recruit experienced Italians such as Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta has helped make the Impact one of the shrewdest sides in the league.
"They're a good team, lot of good players, I think keeping possession is a big part," said Ashe. "It's a team that kind of likes to 'fake defend'. They leave numbers high, kind of act like they're defending and as soon as the ball turns over they have so many players that can get in behind that can punish you."
Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear wants his team to forget the previous meeting and make a positive start. "Di Vaio obviously is the key, he scores a bunch of their goals. Overall their possession game can be good. It'd be good to disrupt them and maybe get some chances early on to make them feel a bit uncomfortable," he said.
"They have a good air of confidence about them. When they step on the field they're not in awe of anything or any team. They always seem to think that things will go their way and I think that just comes from experience and being good players … We're two points behind them, that's the most important thing. We're not looking back at the last time we played them."
Montreal started the season with four straight victories and looked for much of the campaign as if they would challenge for first place in the East. But they have not won in MLS since beating the New England Revolution 4-2 on the road on September 8. Last weekend they picked up a point away to the Chicago Fire thanks to an 87th-minute strike from Maxim Tissot, avoiding what would have been a third straight league defeat.
"The late equalizer will have revitalized the team," said Noel Butler, host of Oranges @ Half-time, a long-running soccer radio show on Montreal's TSN 690. "A third straight defeat could have had far reaching consequences, led to deep soul searching. When at a time ordinarily, with such few games left before the end of the season, the team needs to be at the very top of its game."
Houston's starting XI has looked more settled in recent weeks as the injury list has eased, with only Brian Ownby a certain absentee this evening. But Kinnear says that any lineup is always in a state of flux from game to game. This is the first of a trio of key fixtures at BBVA Compass Stadium, with the two sides above Montreal—Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls—on deck.
"You never settle on it because it's never perfect and something happens along the way," he said. "There won't be the same eleven on Wednesday against Kansas City because some guys will be missing on international duty. You just look at the eighteen you have at your disposal and try and pick the best lineup from that. It's just been at a consistent level in the last few weeks, it's been nice to pick from."
It is possible that if the Dynamo reach the postseason, the road to MLS Cup will go through Quebec. While there is relatively little history between the clubs, since Montreal only entered MLS last year, Ashe believes that a rivalry could be developing.
"There is definitely something brewing, maybe for the future," he said. "I think we just know that it's going to be a battle. Similar in regards to Kansas City where it's going to be a tough match." In other words, the kind of encounter that the Dynamo relish.
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.