There are all kinds of reasons to pick at the Houston Dynamo’s 2017 season. Scott French of the magazine FourFourTwo pointed one out in an article two days ago.
“Houston went 12-1-4 at BBVA Compass Stadium, scoring 43 goals and conceding on average just once per game. That means it won only once — at Eastern Conference cellar-dweller D.C. United in July — and scored 14 times in 17 away games. That kind of ineptitude kept the Portland Timbers from a postseason berth in 2016. It likely would have been more painful for Houston if the West’s quality not dipped so greatly, and it’s an obvious area for improvement come 2018.”
And then there is this:
They are right that the Dynamo likely would not have made the playoffs in the Western Conference the last few years. However that is no reason to ignore the progress the Dynamo have made this year after last night’s 1-0 AET win over Sporting Kansas City at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. With the victory the Dynamo now advance to play the Portland Timbers in a Western Conference Semifinal, in the first of a two-leg series, next Monday night.
This Was Not Beautiful Soccer
The Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City have a history. From 2011-2013 the teams played in 3 consecutive MLS Eastern Conference playoff series (both teams switched to the West in a realignment for the 2014 season). In all three series, the Dynamo were the lower seeded team and, despite this disadvantage, they won both the 2011 and 2012 matchups and advanced to MLS Cup. The last time the Dynamo played a home playoff game was in October of 2013 against Sporting KC. That 2013 match was tedious and an example of MLS Playoff scheduling at its worst. Because an International break is scheduled in the middle of the playoffs, MLS is forced to play too many games in too short a period of time every year. It certainly was true in 2013 leading up to this game. Sporting was playing their fifth game in 17 days and the Dynamo’s their sixth. The fatigue was evident on a hot afternoon in Houston and the game can best be described as a physical slog. The Dynamo could only manage a 0-0 draw and went on to lose to SKC two weeks later after the International break. That was the last hurrah for a team that had made 6 conference finals in 7 years, advanced to 4 MLS Cup Finals and won two Cups after the 2005 move to Houston. Then came a fallow period that ended with last nights victory.
This game had some of the same physical characteristics as the one in 2013, though this seems to be the case for all games played between the two teams. There was plenty of energy and back and forth in this one, though one could question the results of all the running. Sporting Kansas City should have won this game, but were bitten by their lack of quality in the final third as they have been all year. I questioned what SKC was thinking when they traded Dom Dwyer to Orlando midseason. The riches they amassed from this trade may eventually pay off in the future, but the lack of finishing last night certainly demonstrated how much he is missed right now.
At the end of the night an Added Extra Time (94th minute) goal from Alberth Elis, after dogged effort by substitute Vicente Sanchez to keep a ball in play, was the difference and the Dynamo advance to play Portland Monday night.
What Kind of Performance Will We See
MLS wants to provide an incentive for the top two finishers in each conference. They do this by providing a bye to these teams while the other four qualifiers play midweek knock-out games. The first place Portland Timbers will certainly benefit from that incentive next Monday night. The Dynamo, primarily because of World Series scheduling, have been asked to play the next match 3 days from now after 120 minutes of draining soccer last night. To further complicate issues, Dynamo centerback Leonardo left the match last night in the 41st minute and may join AJ DeLaGarza (who tore his ACL in the final match of the regular season) on the injury list. Dynamo head coach Wilmer Cabrera felt that his best option last night was to move Adolfo Machado outside and to start centerback Phillipe Senderos, who has had an outstanding career overseas, but hasn’t played much meaningful soccer recently. Senderos played the entire game for the first time as a Dynamo and wasn’t exactly a beacon of stability. The Dynamo also enter Monday’s game with 5 players on yellow cards after last night’s physical match. This game coming up Monday is shaping up to be another slog. Portland and Houston will then meet again 6 days later to finish off the semifinal round. Count me in as a supporter of a potential offseason MLS change to return to single-leg Conference semifinal and finals being played in the city of the highest team in the standings. Which leads to the next observation
Eliminating The Weeknight MLS Playoff Games Would also be a Good Idea
I understand that sports today is all about TV. Stadium crowds are basically unpaid extras in a live TV studio. That doesn’t stop anybody from complaining about empty MLS stadiums in midweek games especially in larger markets (with a nod to Atlanta who continue to amaze). Last night in Houston was no exception. I am going to shamelessly steal somebody’s comment about how impressed he was by the fact that Houstonians showed their support for the Dynamo last night by attending the game dressed in Orange Stadium Seat Halloween costumes. Yeah the World Series is going on, but this is not the first time this season that the stadium has been empty (regardless of published attendance figures) because there is always an excuse. I have come to the conclusion that the answer is pretty simple. The Dynamo have not figured out how to get locals to care enough about the team or the sport to buy tickets and to get those that do buy tickets to care enough to actually show up. Whether this issue is fixable in Houston without buying Messi and Ronaldo is a topic for another day.
But what do you expect when you schedule a match to start on a school and work night at 8:30 and then delay the start until 9 pm so the earlier game on TV can finish. Before the game many of us at the stadium basically knew this game was going to extra-time, given the history of the match-ups between these two rivals. Thankfully we avoided the game going to penalties and thereby ending around or after Midnight. There may be some sports where you have an engaged enough fan base to show up for games played on week nights and at times like this. There may even be some cities (Kansas City being one) where the stands would have been filled even for weeknight MLS playoffs. This is not the case in Houston and the soccer world will likely learn this lesson next Monday night yet again.
Putting this editorializing aside, the Dynamo got the job done and move on. An appearance in the Conference Semifinals after the awful last few seasons is something I (and most others) did not see coming. As the local announcer said in the post-game show “The Dynamo are playing with house money now”. Regardless of what happens against Portland this has been a successful season on the field.