FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Carving out a path to a second straight MLS Cup appearance presents an arduous task in the best of circumstances, but Houston entered this season with a considerably accelerated degree of difficulty.
Between the seven-game road trip, the array of absences, injuries and suspensions to key players and a peculiar schedule that included congested periods and lengthy breaks, the Dynamo faced more than their fair share of obstacles to start the campaign.
As one might expect from this committed and well drilled side, the players eschewed any semblance of fuss about their lot and progressed through the gauntlet undaunted.
“We toughed it out,” Houston defender Geoff Cameron said on Friday before the Dynamo's 2-2 draw at New England. “You go here and there, you get a couple of wins, a couple of ties and a couple of losses. But, at the same time, we didn't give [away] too many points and we gained some.”
On the balance of things, Houston emerged relatively unscathed from that trying opening period. Consecutive victories over Chivas USA and San Jose to start the season provided a cushion for the remaining five matches on the trip. A final tally of eight points from seven games may not have entirely thrilled the Dynamo, but it did constitute a job well done considering Brad Davis missed the majority of three matches with a left calf strain.
Davis' curling tally provided the difference in a 1-0 victory over D.C. United to open BBVA Compass Stadium on May 12, but the showing in a pair of draws this week – at home to Portland and at New England – promised more than the two points yielded as the Dynamo completed a stretch of four matches in 11 days.
“It's been busy,” Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said. “You look at it on paper and you understand it's going to be tough. Then when you're doing it, it's probably a lot harder than you realize at first. But we've been rotating guys in and out and I think it's worked to our ability to stay fresh later in games.”
If there is one thing Kinnear can rely upon no matter the circumstances, it is that his side will show up and put in an honest shift regardless of the lineup on the field. Houston has leaned on its regulars for much of the season to date, but it has also received contributions from the likes of Calen Carr (currently keeping Colin Clark out of the team on the right flank since Clark returned from a three-match ban) and Alex Dixon (a pair of substitute appearances to underscore his promise) during the early stages of the campaign.
Even with the enforced squad rotation over the past few weeks and the lengthy road trip away from their new home, the Dynamo have managed to keep themselves in the middle of the Eastern Conference picture.
“I think we've done OK,” Kinnear said. “3-3-3 [prior to the New England match] isn't so bad. We're not thrilled. There's a game in New York where we felt we could have gotten something more out of that, but it didn't happen. On Tuesday, [Portland goalkeeper] Troy Perkins makes a couple of dynamic saves. There's always room for improvement, no matter how good you're playing. We've had some moments where we've played some good stuff and some moments where we could do better. But, all in all, I'm not complaining.”
Saturday's draw with New England provided plenty of hope for the remainder of the campaign. Houston turned in perhaps its best performance on the ball this season (61.8 percent of the possession, 82.6 percent passing accuracy and 557 total passes) as it poked and prodded for a way through the Revolution rearguard. A touch more sharpness in the attacking third would have produced more results, but this showing still would have yielded three points if not for a pair of soft goals (a somewhat unexpectedly recurring theme for a Dynamo side normally defiant in its own third).
While every night won't unfold with the Dynamo dictating the terms in possession, this group can still lean on its fundamentals – a miserly and physical defensive approach in the usual 4-4-2 setup, a relentless commitment to winning the ball and a direct attack predicated on Davis' creativity and service on set pieces – to grind out results. Questions still remain in midfield (neither Camargo nor Je-Vaughn Watson have undeniably claimed the attacking midfield role with their performances) and at forward (second-year forward Will Bruin has scored five goals, but Brian Ching is the only other striker to tally), but last season provided plenty of evidence to suggest the Dynamo can find a way to succeed even if helpful reinforcements aren't forthcoming.
A friendly fixture list (15 of the final 24 games take place at BBVA Compass Stadium) and a track record of positive results on a narrow home field tailored to their strengths indicate Houston can push onwards and upwards through the remainder of the regular season. All of those typical Dynamo qualities must rise to the fore at the right time to mount another MLS Cup charge, but the ability to overcome an early set of tribulations offers significant encouragement for the road ahead.
“I still think we're in a good spot,” Houston midfielder Brad Davis said. “We're playing well. I think we just have to be a little sharper in front of goal. The attitude and the effort is always there with this team. Hands down, you're never not going to get that from this group of guys. It's just little things that can be corrected, which is a good thing.”
Five Points – Week 11
1. Klinsmann adds five MLS players to 27-man squad for U.S. training camp: The domestic delegation in U.S. national team camp reached seven on Sunday afternoon after U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann increased his roster to 27 hopefuls. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles) should feature on the final 23-man roster when it is named on Friday, but the other four players recently introduced will face a more complicated road to the squad. Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA) and Geoff Cameron (Houston) look like decent candidates to make the group based on past camps, though Agudelo will have to overcome his recent dearth of first-team action to secure his place. Chris Wondolowski (San Jose) and Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City) must impress in order to overcome issues specific to their hopes – the presence of Herculez Gomez in Wondolowski's case and the glut of midfielders in Zusi's situation – to land a spot in the squad for the upcoming slate of three friendlies and two World Cup qualifiers.
(Note: If one or more of the MLS hopefuls do not make the cut, then they may just return in time for next weekend's fixtures after U.S. Soccer scheduled the release of the 23-man squad for Friday.)
2. Another game, another way to win for New York: Hans Backe's side extended its winning streak to five matches (tying a club record set in 2003) with a typically dogged 2-1 victory at Montreal. Both sides benefited from soft penalty awards in the first half (with New York particularly slighted by the incredibly harsh handling call assessed against Markus Holgersson by the debuting Ismail Elfath), but Dane Richards separated the sides by striking as the Red Bulls came to grips with Victor Palsson's second-half dismissal for two bookable offenses. The entire match presented a somewhat unusual scenario – complete with spotty officiating by the entire crew – on the day, but it didn't prevent New York from consolidating its spot at the top of the Eastern Conference.
(Note: MSG analyst Shep Messing perfectly summed up Elfath's decision to show Jeb Brovsky a yellow card for a shocking, studs-on-shin tackle on Connor Lade after 70 minutes: “That's a red card. How in the world is that not a red card?” Expect the Disciplinary Committee to step in this week and rectify the situation.)
3. Remember when the SuperClasico stood out as one of the league's premier matches?: Chivas USA won this dull and uninspiring meeting on a Jose Erik Correa penalty kick to notch a first home win this season and a first victory over the Galaxy since Aug. 23, 2007 (11 games). Those facts may bolster the Red-and-White's morale after the result, but they do not obscure the concerns in their camp (no goals from the run of play in six home matches) as they adjust to their recently revamped squad. As for the Galaxy, this defeat sent them crashing to their longest stretch without a win since 2009.
4. A dramatic tying goal in a match San Jose should have won going away: Alan Gordon rescued a point that shouldn't have needed rescuing in the Earthquakes' 1-1 draw with Columbus on Saturday night. Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum (seven saves on the night, including a stop on a Wondolowski penalty kick in the first half) stood on his head in San Jose's dominant first-half performance to keep out the home side. Gruenebaum's heroics and a much improved second half display from the battered visitors nearly stood up, but Gordon scissored home the equalizer in the 90th minute
“The first 30-35 minutes, we were excellent and could have been 3-nil up,” Earthquakes boss Frank Yallop told reporters after the match. “Their ‘keeper was excellent and kept them in it. When you don’t put those chances away, you are kicking yourself a bit and they were able to get themselves back in the game. They had a great finish on their goal and came out with some confidence in the second half. I am proud that we didn’t stop fighting and earned at least a point out of the match.”
5. Goal drought, poor run end for Portland at JELD-WEN Field: Portland defender Eric Brunner ended the longest goalless streak in the league this season at 340 minutes when he converted in the 20th minute of the Timbers' 2-1 victory over Chicago on Sunday night.
“It happens; it’s part of the game,” Brunner told MLSsoccer.com about his side's struggles in front of goal after the match. “You just have to kind of deal with it, and you know it’s going to be coming. We have quality players on this team. And we’ve done a good job of keeping [goals] out, so it was nice to get one in.”
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.