A year ago, the Houston Dynamo had just entered the offseason to begin a new journey under newly-appointed head coach Wilmer Cabrera. On Monday, the Dynamo welcome the Portland Timbers to contest the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals in the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs (8:30 p.m. | TICKETS).
Cabrera’s hiring was made to instill a definitive playing style and “build towards getting us back to where we all want to be.” Dynamo VP/General Manager Matt Jordan – the man who uttered those words at the announcement of Cabrera’s hiring – surely has to be satisfied that the Dynamo are four games away from playing in an MLS Cup Final.
The Dynamo are the hottest team in the West, riding a seven match unbeaten run after a tightly-contested 1-0 playoff win over Sporting Kansas City in Cabrera’s managerial debut in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Cabrera and Jordan have worked hand-in-hand throughout the year to build a team that could make it to the playoffs and compete. Now with a win notched in the knockout round, the following series against Portland will be a litmus test of where the team stands amongst the MLS elite.
“Constructing a team takes much time and for us, thankfully, it took us only ten months but it has been by hard work from everyone,” said Cabrera. “Naturally, the most important in this are the players, they have believed, have accepted and have taken the job with much commitment and the results are now being seen.”
The next job for the players comes Monday as they kick off the first leg of the playoff series against the Timbers, with the second leg to follow on Sunday, Nov. 5 at Providence Park in Portland.
The team with the most goals on aggregate advance to the conference finals. If the score is tied after both matches, the winner will be decided by a series of tiebreakers in the following order: away goals, extra time or a penalty shootout.
The hardest part about facing the Dynamo may be that it’s hard to prepare for who will be on the field as Cabrera has utilized 33 different starting lineups in the 35 league matches this season.
“Wilmer is a manager who knows how to work,” said defender Adolfo Machado – the player with the most minutes played this season. “He knows how he wants his team to play and, he’s prepared for a reason, he’s prepared us for a reason and we have known how to comply with what he wants on the pitch.”
Machado, along with Leonardo have been the pillars of the defense. The 29-year-old Leonardo was injured in Thursday’s bout and has been ruled out for Monday’s first leg. The club had already lost defender A.J. DeLaGarza – second in minutes played – and midfielder Memo Rodriguez is also on the injury list.
Despite the circumstances, the focus is the same for the men in Orange.
“I think the key point for us is that we need to continue being Houston Dynamo, the way we are when we play here,” said Cabrera. “We’ve been more solid defensively, for sure. We’ve been creating options the way we have to create, understanding that in the playoffs it’s a little bit different than the regular season because everyone is more cautious.”
The Dynamo have to like their chances opening the series at BBVA Compass Stadium, a place they have only lost once in MLS play all season and the Timbers have never left with a win.
Cabrera is expected to rotate the squad just four days after going 120 minutes against Kansas City, but the focus remains the same.
“We won’t change, we cannot change,” said Cabrera. “If we’re going to go through and if we’re going to go all the way, it’s going to be on our way, the way we’ve been doing for 35 games. The most important is to keep doing it, to keep pushing and to keep trying to do the same thing on the field.”