One down, four to go. With their 3-0 defeat of Montreal, the Houston Dynamo got one match closer to returning to the MLS Cup final. They may have run rampant on Thursday night, but their next task will be much tougher. Sunday afternoon, the Dynamo open the Eastern Conference Semifinals by hosting the Supporters Shield winning New York Red Bulls at BBVA Compass Stadium.
This matchup has not been kind to the Dynamo at all this year - in three regular season meetings, the Red Bulls won all of them, including two wins in Houston. They're just two weeks away from their last victory here, and they'll be rested, having not had to play in the knockout round. On paper, this is already being tabbed as a fairly one-sided contest.
That being said, we should be advised to remember one thing: this is the playoffs, not the regular season. As I mentioned a few days ago, all it takes is a single moment on this stage. Dominic Kinnear has made a career out of getting the Dynamo to string together those type of moments - and this ability has been recognized by most everyone involved with the league. If there's one side that could pull an upset, it's the Dynamo in the playoffs. I don't say this out of arrogance - I say it based on years of experience.
They showed it again Thursday night, when Will Bruin shook off a season's worth of criticism with a brace. They showed it in a backline that frustrated Marco Di Vaio - one of the league's leading scorers - so much that he lashed out at Corey Ashe and was sent off in the closing minutes. They showed it in a midfield that was spectacular at winning the ball and controlling possession. Most of all, they showed it in a performance where they didn't let off the pressure - even when up 3-0, they kept pressing and trying for a fourth.
Thursday's win has provided the Dynamo with a bit of momentum, now it's up to them to keep it going. Unlike Montreal, New York is not a slumping side - far from it, they surged to win the Shield, their first major trophy in franchise history. They're a side that has a lot of confidence, and a lot of talent, as the Dynamo have seen before.
Bobby Boswell and Eric Brunner did a good job of frustrating Di Vaio, and their reward is an even harder task. New York has a number of scoring threats - Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Bradley Wright-Phillips, among them - and has done a very good job this season at picking apart opposing defenses. Boswell, Brunner, and the back line were unscathed Thursday, but they'll still have to play better if they want to stop New York from scoring.
Bruin and Giles Barnes got their fair share of chances, and put most of them on goal, with Bruin converting a pair. If Bruin has found his stride again, it can only make things easier for the Dynamo as a whole. And if he's getting the type of service he got from Ricardo Clark and the rest of the midfield on Thursday, he'll have plenty of chances.
The Dynamo are far from out of it, but they'll be without the guidance of coach (and playoff guru) Dom Kinnear, who will be serving a suspension picked up in Thursday's match, when he left his area to try and help stop the mêlée that resulted in two Montreal players seeing red and Corey Ashe seeing yellow. They won't have his guidance on the sideline this Sunday, but you know they'll get earfuls of advice over the time leading up to the match.
As I said earlier, this is being viewed by some as a very lopsided matchup. It's entirely possible for the Dynamo to surprise people and pull an upset - after all, it wouldn't be the first time that's ever happened in the playoffs - but to do so, they'll have to play very good soccer. Mental mistakes and lapses in judgment killed them over the regular season, so if they can't eliminate them, it might be a very long tie for the men in orange. But if they play like they did Thursday - like they have in so many playoff matches in years past - it's possible. This is where the "believe" in "dream, scream, believe" comes into play.
The best way to give the Dynamo hope of advancing would be to win at BBVA Compass Stadium Sunday afternoon. Every side draws inspiration from their fans, and a full stadium, rocking like it did Thursday, will help give the Dynamo intensity and confidence. Win at home, and you're on your way to better things. Win at home, and find that suddenly, everything's changed. Win at home, and anything is possible.
After ninety minutes on Sunday afternoon, we'll have a better picture of things. Here's hoping that that picture is a good one.