Seth Vertelney: Houston enters MLS playoffs as the team nobody wants to play

Although the Dynamo barely snuck into the postseason, their track record means they are as dangerous as anybody in the MLS playoffs.

WASHINGTON -- Of the 10 teams that reached this season's MLS playoffs, nobody has scored fewer goals than the Houston Dynamo. No team has a worse goal differential than Houston as well, which sits at an even +0.

None of that matters anymore though.

When Houston defeated D.C. United on Sunday and clinched a playoff berth, the Dynamo turned into one of the classic sports clichés: The Team Nobody Wants To Play.

When the postseason arrives, Dominic Kinnear's team morphs into an entirely different group, as exemplified by the last two seasons, when the Dynamo have reached the MLS Cup final, losing to the Galaxy both times.

In 2011, Houston reached the MLS Cup as a two seed and in 2012, the club advanced to the final as a five seed. After clinching the four seed in 2013, the team will look to make it three finals in a row, beginning the postseason by hosting the Montreal Impact in a play-in game on Thursday.

“We've always said you just have to get in and finish as high as you can,” Kinnear told reporters after Sunday's win at D.C. United. “If you get to the playoffs, it's anybody's game. We've seemed to perform well in the playoffs.”

That may be an understatement. Since the Dynamo moved from San Jose in 2006, Kinnear has guided the team to the MLS Cup in four of its six postseason appearances, including wins in 2006 and 2007.

Continuity has been a key to Houston's success, as the team has retained its coach and four players – Mike Chabala, Ricardo Clark, Brian Ching and Brad Davis – from those back-to-back championships, which is no small feat considering how much time has passed.

“I know there will be moments when we can look back – not even the past two years but 2006, 2007, where we've won – you can look back at those moments and know what you need to do in the current position that you're in,” Davis said. “I think the experience being there can help us out a lot.”

Last season, despite being the fifth and final seed in the East, Houston rolled through the conference playoffs, leaving Chicago, Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United in its wake en route to MLS Cup. This season, the Dynamo will once again have to go through the play-in game and although it does create one additional fixture, it also presents an opportunity to gather momentum.

“I think that the play-in game can make you pretty dangerous,” defender Bobby Boswell said. “The play-in game is one game and if you're in that game and you can get hot, then you're obviously the most dangerous team. You're only as good as your last game so that can be in a way an advantage.”

Davis concurred with his teammate.

“I do feel like last year, the run we made, that play-in game did help us,” he said. “We were on a little bit of a roll at the end of the year ... we were able to get right back out on the field again and continue that momentum and that push. We were feeling good, the confidence was high and we wanted to get back out on the field as quick as possible. So I think in that situation, the game did help us.”

Should the Dynamo go on another playoff run this season, it will not only have to defy the odds against a low seed once again, it will also have to defy regular season results.

Houston went 1-2-0 in the regular season against Montreal, including a 5-0 shellacking at Stade Saputo in August. Should the Dynamo advance, they will face New York in the conference semifinal, a team which has given Houston even more trouble this year. In 2013, Kinnear's men lost all three regular season games against the Red Bulls by a combined score of 9-1, including a 3-0 trouncing at BBVA Compass Stadium just last weekend.

“We got beat by New York a lot this year, so law of ratios would maybe say we're due to owe them one,” Boswell said.

Based on regular season results, the Red Bulls would presumably be hoping for a Dynamo victory on Thursday night, but given Houston's history, New York may be awfully relieved if the Canadian side turns up at Red Bull Arena for the Eastern Conference semifinal next month.

“We're not going to be overawed, because we've been in this position before,” Kinnear said.

Though they may not have the strongest regular season optics, Kinnears men have the postseason chops to intimidate teams that on paper, would be considered big favorites.

"I don't think we're a team that you necessarily want to play," Boswell said.

"Depending on who gets matched up with us, I don't think we're a team that people are saying 'Oh, we're matched up with the Dynamo, good.' It's kind of one of those 'Oh boy, what are we in for?'"

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