On the morning of a 2-0 victory over Philadelphia, Dynamo Theory reader Objective Observer put it this way: "It may be cliché, but our playoffs have started." Cliché or no, it rings absolutely true.
Wrapping up a win in the first of twelve Eastern Conference matchups to close the season, the Dynamo feel the pinch of a forlorn 2014 campaign nipping at their backs. With little time to celebrate, the team already has another Massive obstacle in the way - the ever elusive road win. With just a single win from 11 road games, it's not a feeling the Dynamo are too familiar with. The pitiful away form is even more glaring considering that the Dynamo have dropped 15 points at home. In order to make any significant climb in the playoff standings, the men in Orange will have to unlock road games and bring home results.
It won't be an easy task against a Columbus team clicking into gear. The Crew stumbled through a sixteen-game stretch this season with a single win but have finally turned up to play, winning three of the last five games. Dispatching LA Galaxy at home last weekend in a shocking 4-1 win has been great for confidence as the team climbed to 4th in the East on 30 points. The Dynamo sit five points back in 8th but the three teams caught in between Houston and Columbus all host games this week versus weaker opponents, making a result for either team vital.
If the recent form is any sign, Dynamo players may be up to the task. The team has grown into a more cohesive and dominant unit, breaking down attacks and controlling possession better than at any other point in the year. Since acquiring DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido, the Dynamo have 2 wins in three games and have displayed a more technical and tactically-improved team. Will Bruin, especially, looks to have found form against Philadelphia, notching his third goal in four games last Friday night.
Bruin, who has become an attacking fulcrum in the final third, has also tallied 9 goals on the season. That's one shy, as Matt Pedersen points out, of tying an MLS record for goals in a rookie's first four years (held by Clint Mathis with 35). If Will aims to beat that record, scoring on Saturday night would be a good start.
Houston will be without the advantage of facing an opponent trudged through oppressively humid midweek games as they had against Philadelphia. Instead, they face a team keyed in and molding around first-year head coach and MLS veteran Gregg Berhalter. After a very public chase for USMNT International Mix Diskerud fell short, Berhalter continued to back one of the youngest squads in the league and the results have been impressive.
Last week's match against LA proved to be a display of the realized capabilities of the Crew. While Columbus sacrificed a bit of possession to play on the counter, Tony Tchani sat in midfield and forcefully shut down LA offense, setting off nearly every Crew attack. Sitting behind Tchani, Goalkeeper Steve Clark affirmed his position against one of the most threatening offenses in the league, recording 4 saves. The defense isn't impenetrable, however, having had only 4 clean sheets from 24 games.
Lacking consistency for most of the year, the Crew wingers, in the form of Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, have hit their stride. Each player recorded a goal and assist against LA and the pair accounted for 9 of Columbus' 21 shots that night. The duo have combined for 10 goals this year and Meram, in particular, has proven deadly from outside the box.
This Columbus attack can easily become a handful for Houston's defense. The wing-play of Meram and Finlay has helped open up the center of the field where players like Federico Higuaín (who has recorded 9 goals of his own) can flourish. Further, Columbus has had little trouble finding someone willing to test a keeper. The Crew featured 9 players that recorded at least one shot against LA last weekend. Garrido and Ricardo Clark will need to be stubborn and creative with their distribution in order to snuff out what Columbus will provide.
Houston may have recorded a 1-0 victory back in May against Columbus, but this game (and the matchup on September 13th) carries a special weight that should make for a heavily contested clash.
The Dynamo take on Columbus at Columbus Crew Stadium on Saturday, August 23rd at 6:30pm. The match can be seen on CSN Houston+ and Telemundo.