This is it. The 2012 Houston Dynamo season will come down to a tough road game to determine if their year will continue. Wednesday night, the Dynamo will travel up north to Toyota Park to face the fourth place Chicago Fire (8:00 p.m. CST, ESPN2).
With this past weekend's results, Houston finished in the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The fourth and fifth seeds will face off in a mid week elimination match to see who will go on to play first place Sporting Kansas City.
On all levels, this will be a tough test for the Dynamo. It's no secret it's win or go home, but Houston will need to show up with confidence from the first whistle. Chicago finished the year 11-3-3 at home and Toyota Park has been somewhat of a fortress for them similar to BBVA Compass Stadium for Houston. These two clubs have played each other three times this year - a 1-1 draw in Chicago, a 0-0 draw in Houston, and the most recent game in Toyota Park where Chicago won 3-1.
Houston is Rested and Ready
The Dynamo are coming off a 2-0 loss to Colorado on the road, giving them a 3-9-5 record away from home. It would have been nice to have some winning momentum coming into a road elimination match, but it wasn't to be. In the end, Dominic Kinnear chose to rest his starters when Houston learned they couldn't move from their current seed.
So the good thing about the squad coming into the match is the Dynamo are injury free and rested. Chicago played on Saturday, but they don't have any major injuries to report so both teams should be at full force.
Control the Fire
Chicago kicked off a nice run up the standings starting back in early August. For an eight game span, the Fire won seven games and looked as if they could challenge for best in the East. Chris Rolfe was on fire (no pun intended) during that stretch, scoring six of his team leading eight goals. Since that stretch however, Chicago finished the season with three losses in their last five. Rolfe didn't score in any of those matches. Obviously containing Chicago's biggest offensive weapon will be key.
Sherjill MacDonald has also been a solid addition to the Fire and will need to be contained as well. MacDonald is in his first year with Chicago and has tallied four goals and four assists in 14 appearances.
Speed has been a challenge for the Dynamo defense from time to time throughout 2012, and Chicago boasts two quick players that could give Houston some trouble. Patrick Nyarko has tied his career high for goals scored with four, and added seven assists. In addition to Nyarko, former Dynamo Dominic Oduro is always looking to hurt his former team.
Keys to Victory
With one chance to advance in the MLS Cup Playoffs, starting the game off focused and getting the game's first goal will be the key to Houston's success. I'd expect to see Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark starting in midfield, and they will need to be sharp to neutralize the midfield. With two draws this season, Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia will need get wide and create some chances for Houston with quality service in the box. Will Bruin should be more comfortable with the Dynamo in a 4-4-2, but will need to finish any chance he gets if Houston wants to move on to face Sporting Kansas City. I'd expect to see Calen Carr up front with Bruin, and he'll be looking to cause problems for his former club.
Finally, Houston's playoff experience could go a long way. Keep in mind, we had a solid run to the MLS Cup last year so the majority of the club has some experience. Veterans Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, and Brian Ching will lead this team into another playoff run - a sixth in seven years.
Lineup and Score Prediction
I think we'll set up in a 4-4-2 with Hall; Sarkodie, Taylor, Boswell, Ashe; Moffat, Clark, Davis, Garcia; Bruin, Carr
It'll be a tough game and probably a nail biter, but I think the Dynamo will prevail 2-1.