There must be a switch on a timer in the Dynamo locker room, because it seems to flip to "on" around this time every year.
Result: a power surge that Houston is aiming to keep flowing on Sunday when they host the Eastern Conference leaders in the final regular season home game of the year at BBVA Compass Stadium (3 p.m. CT; CSN Houston).
The Dynamo have four wins and two draws in their past six fixtures, including the home victory over W Connection in the CONCACAF Champions League. Midfielder Servando Carrasco directly attributes that uptick in form to the culture in the locker room.
"We have a reputation for having a very tight-knit locker room and that translates to this chapter in the season when it's not going to be pretty at times but you find a way to grind results, to fight for the guy next to you," he told HoustonDynamo.com.
"We are one of those teams that kind of flips that switch once the playoffs come around. We've done it the past two years and it's no surprise that we made it to the final because there's this commitment to do the dirty work. At the end of the day, details win games and I feel like we've focused on those details and the results reflect that. "
The Dynamo have conceded only two goals in those six matches, so Sunday's game against the New York Red Bulls should be a very different encounter to the previous meeting between the sides. That was a 4-1 win for the Red Bulls, who took their chances efficiently in an open game where neither team was at full strength.
"[Houston is] on a good run lately. They’re fighting for a playoff future. So it’s going to be a completely different game," Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke told NewYorkRedBulls.com.
Depending on other results, a win could be enough for Dominic Kinnear's men to confirm a top-five place. Already guaranteed a postseason berth, the visitors are aiming for three points at BBVA Compass Stadium that would boost their hopes of finishing atop the East and even claiming the Supporters Shield.
"Clearly they have a very talented squad with players like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill," said Carrasco. "[Cahill has] scored a lot of important goals this year, he's very good in the air so we have to have an awareness of him on set pieces and obviously Thierry Henry's a world class player, he can drop into midfield to receive the ball, he can make those runs in behind, he still has a tremendous amount of pace."
After scoring only once in 14 league games last season, Cahill has ten MLS goals so far this term, including two in his past two games. The 33-year-old leads the league in headed goals this season. He was an unused substitute on Tuesday night as Australia beat Canada 3-0 in a friendly in England.
Henry, meanwhile, has nine goals and eight assists in 2013, including one goal and two assists against the Dynamo. On the left, the hardworking Northern Irishman, Jonny Steele, has scored four goals in MLS this season and two have come against the Dynamo.
Carrasco mentioned another New York unsung hero in midfield that the Dynamo will need to track. "I think Dax McCarty doesn't get enough credit. He's kind of like the glue of that team, the connector in the midfield, so we have to have an awareness of him when he switches the point of attack, they like to spread out the field," he said. "They have a lot of weapons but so do we and we're playing at home."
The 25-year-old from San Diego arrived a month ago in a trade with the Seattle Sounders that saw Adam Moffat head to the Pacific Northwest. He already seems comfortable in orange.
"I feel like I'm part of the team now. I feel like it takes a couple of weeks to make the adjustment and one of the main things is to get to know the guys. I'm familiar with the locker room now and more than anything the style of play. It took me about two weeks but I feel ready now," he said.
Carrasco started against W Connection and has made two substitute appearances in MLS, though the central midfield pairing of Ricardo Clark and Warren Creavalle may be hard to dislodge given the team's form. But if Carrasco can impress in training and off the bench and pressure those ahead of him, everyone benefits.
"That's always the goal, to push for a starting spot and if I'm not starting to push the guy that's starting. You always want to have depth on a team and for players to be pushing for minutes so that's exactly what I want to do," 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.