A confident Dynamo defense is set to face the deadliest striker in MLS as the team prepares for a road trip that will have big implications for their playoff prospects.
Houston visit the New York Red Bulls on Saturday (5 p.m. CT, NBCSN) knowing that a win would lift them within two points of their opponents, who currently occupy the fifth and final Eastern Conference postseason place. The Dynamo also have a game in hand on Mike Petke’s side.
Unbeaten in five and having kept back-to-back shutouts for the first time since the opening two games of the season, Houston head to Red Bull Arena believing they can pull off a victory that would thrust them deeper into the playoff conversation.
First, they’ll likely have to find a way to subdue Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has scored 24 MLS goals this season. That puts him four goals in front of Sporting Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer in the Golden Boot chase and three behind the MLS single-season record held by Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski — with four matches to play.
Five of those strikes have come against the Dynamo. “We’ve just got to apply a lot of pressure on him, make it difficult for him on the night, that’s the best thing we can do - try our best to make sure we don’t give him anything too easy,” right back Kofi Sarkodie told HoustonDynamo.com.
“We’re doing better, getting some shutouts, scoring goals so we’ve just got to keep that going … I think collectively it’s just been a good effort from everybody. Last minute tackles, guys getting in the box — and we’ve gotten goals early which I think has helped.”
All but one of the London-born 29-year-old’s goals have come inside the penalty area. “He’s a poacher, a goalscorer. He’s not going to turn you at midfield and dribble you and score; he gets in the box, gets good service and he finishes his crosses off and chances and that’s a goalscorer right there,” Dynamo leading scorer Will Bruin told reporters. “You’re not going to try and be all fancy and do all these things. You get in the box, you score your goal, you do your job. That’s about it.”
Sidelined for the past month with a foot injury, Bruin hopes to return to first-team action soon. He is not surprised at the team’s improved recent form. “I think we’re keeping the ball. Obviously the additions of DaMarcus [Beasley] and Luis [Garrido] have been huge, Luis is a big ball-winner,” he said.
“The way we’re playing, it’s been kind of an odd year. We know we’re a good team, I think we’re kind of a little shocked at how things went midway through the season but this is how we expect to play.”
New York lost 4-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy last Sunday and Sarkodie is unsure how the team will rebound mentally from the heavy loss. “It’s weird, you never know. Sometimes teams lose big and then come out and all of a sudden they win big. And sometimes they lose big and lose again, they keep conceding goals. You just never really know what the mentality of the group is, so for us, we can’t really focus too much on them and too much on their mentality or past result, we’ve just got to keep plugging along, keep working on things that have allowed us to get points in these past four games,” he said.
“We’ve played them, we know New York, we’ve battled against each other so many times in the past couple of years so we know it’s going to be a fight. It’s always a fight when we go there. At home they do very well, they’ve got a good squad. Right now we’re starting to fire a little bit so it’s going to be a great test and we’ve just got to go in there, keep our heads down and grind it out.”
Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear is encouraged by the organization and fluency of recent displays but ruing the fact that as the Dynamo have raised their performances, so too have several of the playoff-chasing teams around them. With games running out it makes this Saturday’s clash a vital opportunity to gain ground. “You have to give credit to the teams ahead of you,” he said. “But confidence-wise our goals against has been really good in these five games, our goals for has been good, I think we look dangerous, we seem to look like we’re going to score every game and defensively we’re smarter.”
Only five points separate the New England Revolution in second and Toronto FC in sixth, who are just below the red line but claimed two wins in their past two fixtures, leaving them a point below New York.
“It’s a big game for both of us,” said Kinnear. “Obviously with Toronto winning and New England it’s a good little pack there. Philadelphia and ourselves are still [in the hunt], so it’s a big one as we all know.”
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.