Dominic Kinnear cannot remember a year quite like this one. With only two regular season MLS fixtures to go, the Dynamo could finish anywhere from first to seventh in the Eastern Conference.
The Dynamo host the New York Red Bulls on Sunday in the last game of the regular season at BBVA Compass Stadium. A win could seal Houston's place in the playoffs and a top-three finish that would ensure at least one more home match.
A defeat and unfavorable results elsewhere could mean a highly stressful last day, with the Dynamo going into their game away to D.C. United in desperate need of a good result. With so much riding on every match, it feels like the playoffs have started early.
While the Columbus Crew's postseason hopes are remote, only D.C. and Toronto FC are officially out of the running in the East. And of the 19 teams in MLS, only the Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City have clinched playoff spots.
Kinnear may be one of the most experienced coaches in MLS, but he struggles to recall a season with a climax involving so many cast members. Last year, all five berths in the East and all five in the West were settled before the final day.
"No, usually by this time most of the time things are either sorted out or maybe two or three teams are jockeying for position. You look at the West, two teams are not involved in the playoffs. It's an excellent year for all the teams involved, the coaches have done a good job and it's exciting for the fans," said the Dynamo head coach.
Houston faces New York on Sunday at 3 p.m. CT. Rivals New England Revolution, Chicago Fire, Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union all play a day earlier, while Kansas City is at home to D.C. on Friday. So come kickoff, both the Dynamo and their opponents, who are seeking the Supporters Shield, should have a clear idea of what is needed from the match.
Knowledge is power, but in this circumstance it's not strictly required. Kinnear said that knowing the outcomes elsewhere will not alter the Dynamo's mentality. As always, the team is aiming for three points and wants to take care of its own business without having to rely on others.
"I don't think it affects how we approach the game. We're just going to know exactly where we stand, where other teams stand in the standings before we kick off, but I don't think our approach will change at all," he said.
Forward Jason Johnson agrees. "Everybody wants to win every game, that's why we play," he told HoustonDynamo.com. Houston lost 4-1 when the teams met last month, but the match was a personal milestone for the Jamaican rookie, who scored his first MLS goal. It was a cool close-range finish set up by an incisive pass behind the defense by Alexander López.
Johnson says it was an important moment in his maturation process after coming frustratingly close to opening his account several times earlier in the year. "Definitely—it'd been a while," he said. "In other games I'd got chances and it was frustrating but to get that one gave me a calm mentality. But I'm still hungry for more, as a striker you just want to score."
The Red Bulls game was the second in a run of three straight MLS starts for the 23-year-old, who seized his chance to impress while a number of more senior players were unavailable. "We didn't have our full squad, the guys were away on international duty or injured. As a rookie it was really lucky for me, I worked hard and put myself in a position [to get picked]," he said.
With the Dynamo's roster looking as strong as it has done all season, and feeling confident on the back of three wins and two draws in its past five MLS games, Johnson is optimistic of a better result on Sunday for the clubs' third meeting of the year.
"This time I think it will be different. [Last month] it was just a couple of lapses here and there. There were chances in the game where we could have gotten the lead or gotten a couple of goals back. But having the full squad this week will be really good," he said.
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.