When Omar Cummings prodded the ball over the line in the 92nd minute of Sunday's Eastern Conference semifinal he made things simple for tonight's second leg at Red Bull Arena (7 p.m. CT; CSN Houston).
With the tie level at 2-2 and away goals not a factor, there is no need for either team to overthink their tactics or lineups or to spend hours worrying about permutations, calculating how best to protect an advantage or recover a deficit. What could have been a 180-minute chess match is now a 90-minute slugfest.
Often, clubs who hold the edge going into a second leg, especially on the road, are caught in two minds as to whether they should sit back and defend what they have or try to enhance their lead. There is no such dilemma this evening. "It's even so there's no pressure of keeping a lead, it's just going out and playing, honestly," said defender Cory Ashe.
"I don't think we're known as a team that's just going to sit back, it's not our game plan, because they have too many quality players that will punish you if you just sit back. So we're going to try to take the fight to them as well, we're not just going to sit back and let them counter and let them dictate the flow of the game. No, we're going to go out there and [try to] win the game."
The Dynamo have been involved in seven two-legged MLS playoff ties in their history, but only on two occasions were the scores level entering the second leg—most recently in 2009, when Dominic Kinnear's side drew 0-0 away to the Seattle Sounders then won the return game 1-0 at Robertson Stadium.
"We always try and play with the same mentality and that's to try and win the game, " said Kinnear, the head coach. "One thing we haven't tried to do in the past is go somewhere and defend, even though we did a lot of it in Kansas City [in last year's semifinal second leg]. It's just the way the game went."
The Red Bulls' home field is slightly larger than the pitch at BBVA Compass Stadium. While the extra grass may give the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill more space to make runs and pick out passes, the Dynamo players believe it could help their own possession game. Houston had the bulk of the ball in the first leg but New York did a good job of pressurizing them in midfield in the opening 45 minutes.
"They're going to look to play but I think the bigger pitch and the nice grass is going to help us too. We're going to get the ball down and play, we're a team that likes to play as well. At some times the game's going to be pretty open but we're going to have to be smart and try not to make it a track race," said Dynamo striker Will Bruin.
Kinnear also stresses the need for his players to be shrewd and aware of opponents who are adept at profiting from mental errors. "I don't think we played particularly poorly in the first half, they just kind of capitalized on mistakes and broke well and were very efficient in front of goal," he said.
"Possession's going to be key for us and obviously when the ball turns over you've got to be very careful. They're a little bit like LA in years past where they have two good guys going forward and they break very well and hold the ball up and have good movement so our positional sense when we lose the ball is going to be very important."
The Red Bulls are forced into a change in defense, since Jamison Olave is suspended after picking up a red card for his foul on Cummings last Sunday. "He's a good player, everyone knows—for me he's probably defender of the year, he's quick, he's strong, there's not much that he hasn't got, so it should be a little bit of a different look to their back line," said Dynamo forward Giles Barnes. The Red Bulls are 2-2-3 this year without the 6 feet, 3 inch Colombian defender in the starting lineup.
While Cummings' late strike hit the reset button, Houston don't want to wipe the memory of their stirring second-half comeback from 0-2 down. The Dynamo finished the match with spirit and momentum that they hope has made the journey with them from BBVA Compass Stadium to Red Bull Arena.
"The guys walked off the field with a good little bit of confidence, a bounce in our step, and hopefully we'll walk onto the field in New York with the same zip and confidence and come out with a nice win," said Kinnear.
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.