The Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park has already hosted one high-profile match this week. It will hold another on Saturday when the Dynamo visit in search of a victory that would lift them to within two points of their playoff-chasing opponents (6 p.m. CT, CSN Plus).
The Union’s riverside stadium was the venue for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final on Tuesday but it was an unhappy night for the home side, who lost 3-1 to the Seattle Sounders after extra time and missed out on claiming the first trophy in franchise history.
Will they swiftly rebound or could the disappointment linger? Speaking beforehand, Dynamo defender Kofi Sarkodie said that regardless of the result it would be impossible to predict the impact on the Union’s players. “There are just so many different scenarios it’s hard to dictate the spirit of the team, you just never know,” he told HoustonDynamo.com.
“They’re in a position where they feel like they might be able to sneak in and get to the playoffs and we’re also fighting to get to that same spot. It’s going to be a tight match no doubt, probably very physical.”
Regardless of the Union’s mood and condition, the Dynamo know they have to focus on performing at their best this Saturday and beyond with time fast running out and little room for error. “We’ve got to make sure we do a quality job in these last seven games,” said Sarkodie.
In the wider context, Houston’s squad feels that the team is playing well, but there was frustration at failing to hold on to a 2-0 halftime lead at home to the Columbus Crew last Saturday. The visitors scored twice early in the second period to claim a tie that left the Dynamo five points adrift of the playoff places with a game in hand.
The occasion was a battle and Columbus responded strongly to adversity. Sarkodie was not surprised — this is the time of year where points are at a premium and even on teams that are not in postseason contention, players are likely competing hard to show they merit a roster spot in 2015.
“You’re in the last ten, the last ten are real crucial points, so everyone’s fighting, scrambling, you’re going to get guys that are playing for a multitude of reasons. So in the last ten games you have to give everything, give your all. Every game’s going to be a fight to the finish,” he said.
With eight goals in their past three games, the Dynamo appear to have banished the scoring problems that contributed to an eight-match MLS winless streak earlier in the campaign. The team has won three and drawn one of its past five fixtures. In fact, with 14 points in their past eight games, the Dynamo are one of the Eastern Conference’s most in-form teams; as are Philadelphia.
Sarkodie believes the contrast is clear between the Dynamo’s performances and results before the World Cup, when the roster was left shorthanded by injuries and absences, and afterwards, when it has usually been closer to full strength and was upgraded by the arrivals of DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido.
“It is a different team, we have different players in different positions, Beas is here, Luis, Omar [Cummings] is back. Realistically it is a different picture. That’s how it is probably in every league if you look from the start to the finish you have different guys that come in at different parts of the season and contribute, that’s just how soccer is,” Sarkodie said.
One of those key recent contributors has been Cummings. After playing only 32 MLS minutes in July and August, the striker started the past two games in place of the injured Will Bruin and made a big impact. He was heavily involved in three goals scored by Giles Barnes, tallying two official assists, and his high-energy displays helped spark the attack and create space for his fellow forward. They also recalled the form that saw the 32-year-old tie for the MLS assists lead in 2009, when he provided 12 for the Colorado Rapids.
“Whenever the opportunity presents itself I always try to [play] my best soccer and it’s been going well,” the Jamaican told reporters at Houston Sports Park. Creating a rapport with Barnes despite their limited playing time together was a matter of communication, he said: “Talking to each other, making runs off each other, letting each other know, ‘I’m here,' where I’m at, and trying to keep it moving.”
Cummings agreed that the Dynamo are looking sharper now than earlier in the year. He said that the 3-1 road win at Sporting Park on August 29 was an important moment in convincing the players that despite some challenging times this year they have the quality to emulate the achievements of past Dynamo generations.
“I think it started with the result in Kansas City, it was a big game and Kansas City being our rivals, getting those points boosted the momentum, confidence, in the guys,” he said. “Just trying to make that push for the playoffs, the Dynamo’s always had that — I don’t know what it is about the Dynamo team, when it comes to this point in the season, you make a push, go for a run and this is the time.”
Another big test of that self-belief is set for Saturday evening on the banks of the Delaware River.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.