We meet again, my friends. Back in late June, I had highlighted a five match stretch in which I said that to conceivably have a chance in the postseason race, the Houston Dynamo would have to take at least half (seven or eight) of the fifteen points available to them. With three home matches and two away, I figured that, given their form at the time, anything else would have been setting too high a standard.
I don't mind admitting I was wrong on one count. The Dynamo did indeed get those seven points - at BBVA Compass. Wins against the Columbus Crew and the Philadelphia Union, as well as a draw against the Chicago Fire, meant that my figure was covered solely by home results. The Dynamo lost on the road to the New York Red Bulls, but also got a bit of revenge in a road victory against the New England Revolution, to make the grand total ten points. Two out of every three points the Dynamo could pick up in this stretch, they did.
Now for the slightly less good news: those ten points have barely been enough to help the Dynamo stand pat at fifth place in the Eastern Conference. There was even a point there where they slipped out of the playoff picture on a tiebreaker - that scoreless slump coming back to haunt them - but it appears that at the moment, they've regained a foothold into the playoffs. Possibly even more important, the Dynamo have matches in hand against most of the East. Only Chicago and the Montreal Impact have played as few matches as the Dynamo have - though this may not turn out to be the blessing that it seems to be.
Why is that, do you ask? Well, it's because the Dynamo reached the MLS Cup Final last season. That, of course, earned them a berth in this year's edition of the CONCACAF Champion's League, which starts up this week. Now, the Dynamo's first CCL match won't be until 20 August at Mannie Ramjohn Stadium against Trinidad and Tobago's W Connection F.C., but the tournament's effects will have already started by then. Two other Eastern Conference sides, Sporting Kansas City and the Montreal Impact, also have CCL play - but they also have two fewer league matches to worry about.
So from here on out, the Dynamo's schedule gets very, very crowded. They play six matches in August, seven in September and five in October. Starting with the (suddenly very intriguing) match at home against Seattle Sounders F.C. on 17 August, the Dynamo play seven matches in twenty-three days. Three days, plus travel to Trinidad and Tobago. Four days, plus travel from the Caribbean all the way up to Montreal. Three days plus travel back to Houston, and then a match against Panamanian side C.D. Árabe Unido in the exhausting climate of late August. Then they get right back on a plane and play in Chicago and Columbus over the course of a week before coming back to Houston to face New York.
There's another string of crowded matches a few weeks later - five matches in nineteen days - but four of those five are here in Houston, so there's not nearly the travel headache that the Dynamo will have to endure in a few weeks. To make it even better, there are four Hexagonal fixture dates left in World Cup qualifying. And even better? The first two of those are 6 and 10 September - right on the tail end of the seven-in-twenty-three stretch. Thankfully, the two October dates (the 11th and the 15th) fall into the Dynamo's one brief hiatus during the stretch, and the international players will probably miss just one match for that.
So it comes back to depth. Just when it seems that most of the pieces for a Dynamo run are coming back together, they'll have to be re-arranged and shepherded through the next few months. We're going to lose (at least) Brad Davis, Jermaine Taylor, and Boniek Garcia to World Cup qualifying - and Tally Hall, Corey Ashe, and Will Bruin are bubble players - guys who may or may not be called up, depending on how Jurgen Klinsmann sees fit. Calen Carr is still working back from his injury in last year's Cup final, Andrew Driver is dealing with Achilles tendonitis (which is a whole lot better than the ACL problems we feared when he first got hurt), Brian Ching and Anthony Arena are still trying to work themselves back from minor injuries, and Omar Cummings signed a huge deal that seems to have come with horrid luck as he's faced setback after setback this season.
Clearly, the depth will have to come into play. Last year, Tyler Deric earned a bit of a name for himself in the group stages of the Champions League, and he'll be expected to carry the brunt of that work as well - unless Hall finds himself as the third keeper for the U.S. national team (a long shot, I think, but still a possibility to keep in mind), in which case Erich Marscheider might suddenly find that he has something to do. Alex Dixon might have to get some playing time as well, and Dynamo fans will get to take a long look at young strikers Jason Johnson and Bryan Salazar.
With Taylor gone for at least part of this stretch, defensive duties will fall to Bobby Boswell and Eric Brunner, backed up on the sides by Kofi Sarkodie and (barring a call from Klinsmann) Ashe. Mike Chabala and Warren Creavalle are also available, with Creavalle's proven versatility a great asset for the coming months. Midfield isn't so much of an issue, with Driver, Giles Barnes, Dixon, Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark available to hold down the fort. Even with Luis Camargo gone, the Dynamo have midfield pieces to work with.
The strikers are still a work in progress, just like they've been all season. Still, there is reason to hope. Ching has resumed training with the team, and Carr was recently cleared to return to practice. Cummings may or may not be getting close to (another) return, and if he does, it's one more piece. Bruin came back from the Gold Cup and scored, and Cam Weaver seems to have decided that he wants to make a case for inclusion in the discussion of starters. It might not be prodigious production, but the Dynamo are starting to get goals from strikers again - something that more healthy strikers will certainly add to.
The Dynamo are going to have to buckle down now. It's a fine line they'll have to walk - sure, there's a shot they could get the Supporters Shield (they're only five points back of it right now), but would that exhaust players that would be needed to make another run at the true goal? Do you possibly sacrifice having a more rested side for a push to the Cup in exchange for higher seeding or the Shield? Do you play complete reserve sides in Champions League, hoping that your depth and strength win out, or do you mix some regular players in - using a bit more of them than you'd like in order to secure a spot in the knockout rounds come next spring?
One thing is certain: too cautious, and the Dynamo might find themselves on the outside looking in on the playoffs - something this squad and their fans aren't used to doing. Philadelphia and New York don't have to worry about Champions League matches to clutter up their attempts to keep pace at the top. New England, Chicago and Columbus likewise don't have to worry about fatigue as much - after all, they're looking up at the top five and trying to figure out some way to get in.
It is, as I noted in the preview last week, the charge à l'outrance - eight sides (possibly even nine, for if Toronto keeps improving, they might still have a very slim chance of sneaking into the playoffs) in an all out battle for five spots. It's a charge the Dynamo have made - and survived - many times, most recently last season. Yet in this league, success breeds naught but a harder road, as last year's successful charge means that this year, they have a bit more to do than most other sides.
Is it time to panic? Even though the Dynamo managed ten points from the last five matches, it didn't move them up in the standings. It hardly even made a dent in the deficit between them and the top seed. But it did prove something. It proved that even in the darkest slumps, the Dynamo still have fight. Even when nothing goes their way, they keep plugging away. They've dealt with losses from international duty, suspensions, and more hurt players than can be found in a Bill Belichick injury report. They've proven that they're capable of this run. If there's anything left for them to figure out, you can bet that Dominic Kinnear will pinpoint it. You don't get to be the seventh-longest tenured professional sports coach in the country without knowing how to get the best out of your players.
And on that note, I'm here to say that you shouldn't be pressing that orange panic button. We'll know soon enough whether or not this Dynamo side are up to the challenge, but I do already know one thing. If I were the kind of person that bets, I wouldn't be doing so against them.