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Snakebitten by injuries in early weeks, defender Raúl Rodríguez adapts to MLS style of play

The bandage above Raúl Rodríguez’s left eye is a lingering reminder of his battle-scarred first few weeks in MLS, but now the center back is looking forward to better luck and hoping for an extended run in the team.

The 27-year-old missed the 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact on April 11 but lasted the full 90 minutes of last week’s 1-1 tie with D.C. United and is available for selection as the Dynamo begin a three-match homestand on Saturday with a clash against old rivals Sporting Kansas City (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS).

The cultured defender signed in January after spending more than four years with Barcelona-based Espanyol in the Spanish top division. The timing, awareness and technique he honed in one of the world’s top leagues was immediately apparent, but he came off with a hamstring injury just before the end of the opening-day win over Columbus Crew SC and missed the next two matches.

After going the full 90 minutes of the goalless draw with the Colorado Rapids, he suffered a freak injury against the Seattle Sounders when he collided with Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric and suffered a deep gash on his forehead.

He required between 20-25 stitches and treatment by a plastic surgeon, and is wearing a headband as a precaution to protect the skin. The scar may require more treatment at the end of the year. But he was in good spirits on Thursday.

“I’m fine, I’m getting better — of course very unlucky situations at the beginning,” he told HoustonDynamo.com. “Two years without injuries and in the first few weeks here you’re injured two times. These things happen.”

Underlining the belief head coach Owen Coyle has in Rodríguez — who was persuaded to move to Houston by vice president/general manager Matt Jordan, who visited him in Spain — as soon as he was fit again he was restored to a starting role alongside Jermaine Taylor.

“I had the opportunity again to be with the first XI last week and I have the confidence of the coach and this is very important because you may be injured but the coaches trust you and they have confidence in you and you’ve got the option again of being on the team,” he said.

“I’m happy, just trying to be in good fitness, trying to be feeling good to be able to stay with the first XI. When I’m in the team I’m fine. When you’re injured you’re always ‘why me?’, but now I’m fine.”

Rodríguez suggested that the opening-day leg twinge might have happened because his body was adjusting to the pace of MLS. “It’s about the speed of the game, the different rhythm, you have to give yourself time to get used to the different things in this kind of soccer,” he said.

He described MLS as faster than soccer in Spain, and “vertical” rather than “horizontal” — with more quick and direct balls forward, rather than the patient side-to-side buildup play he was used to in his native country.

“Defender is usually more of a quiet place to play but not here, not in MLS. There are a few things, a different type of soccer, but it’s soccer — a universal language. I just have to work on little details,” he said.

The coming days will bring another new experience: rivalry matches at BBVA Compass Stadium. Both the Dynamo and SKC moved into the Western Conference this year, but the change of division isn’t likely to dampen the intensity of what are typically some of the hardest-fought matches of the season. And then FC Dallas visit on May 1 for the first Texas Derby of the season.

During his time in Spain, Rodríguez played in several derby matches against Barcelona and knows what rivalry games mean for players and fans alike. He said that the energy from the stands spills down on to the field and affects the players. And though his style of play is calm and controlled, he loves the heightened drama.

“These kind of games are all around the world and everybody feels the same … the scenario, the ambience, is more passionate,” he said. “If you can add some things to the game to make it more passionate, for me it’s good.”

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.