These days, there isn't a lot of hope residing with Houston Dynamo fans. After examining playoff chances on Tuesday, we put a poll to our readers to see who was dreaming (7% [un]ironically think the Dynamo will go undefeated), screaming (68% don't see the post-season in our future) and believing (32% feel Houston can pull it off). If that's how fans feel now, it'll be up to the men in Orange to raise the pulse of the community starting this weekend.
For the first time this year, Eastern Conference opponents Chicago Fire (5-7-16) will be traveling into town hoping to revive their even narrower playoff hopes (they'll need to go undefeated through their last six to compete). Currently, Houston has claimed 33 points and is sitting in 8th, just ahead of Chicago by two points.
The Fire are coming off a 3-3 draw-that-feels-like-a-loss at home against East leaders DC United. In that match, and the two before it, Chicago have blown leads and dropped points fetching only 2 from a possible 9. By contrast, Houston has quietly gone undefeated in their last four games (2 Wins, 2 Draws).
Chicago enters this match with a ravaged roster including losing 2013 MVP Mike Magee to hip surgery in recent weeks. In addition, central defender Bakary Soumare received a 1-game suspension for a dangerous 9' play against DC (video of Soumare cleating the back of DC's Michael Seaton is here) and right back Lovel Palmer (remember him?) is out for yellow card suspension. This throws the defensive line of the Fire out of sorts, relying on former Dynamo Patrick Ianni to slot into the middle alongside stalwart Jeff Larentowicz while Palmer's right back replacement is less clear. This patchwork defense will be asked to do quite a bit, especially on set pieces - the recent bane of Chicago's play (all three of DC's goals last weekend were from dead ball situations).
Where Chicago has less problems is from the attack. Quincy Amarikwa, who has tallied 8 goals this year, is particularly adept at exploiting slow defenses and can slip through the backline on a creative run quite easily. Dynamo defenders will need to be quick and aware of Amarikwa and the dangerous through-balls provided by midfielder Harrison Shipp.
Shipp, named #17 on MLS' 24 Under 24 list this week, is a contender in Rookie of the Year discussions after providing 6 goals and 6 assists (a leader among rookies) so far this season. Half of his goals also come from an impressive May hattrick in Red Bull Arena. Shipp, aside from Magee, is likely the Fire's biggest contributor (he averages 2.5 chances per game) and is likely the biggest threat to watch Sunday. Pay close attention anytime that Shipp edges into Luis Garrido territory as that'll likely be some of the most fun all day.
Of utmost importance Sunday afternoon will be collecting three points for the Dynamo. Any less would be a disaster and, after registering zero shots on goal in Philadelphia, there should be a collective queasiness in Dynamo fans' stomachs. In that game, the Dynamo were dominated but put in a gutsy performance (including a Save of the Week candidate from Tyler Deric) to keep pace for the playoffs. Garrido put in a Man-of-the-Match-worthy performance and will be relied upon in every game from here on out.
There is also some uplifting news coming from the practice fields this week. After sitting out a week, Boniek Garcia is likely to return on Sunday which should help give the Dynamo attack some flair and threat that was lacking on the road. Houston's coaching staff remain hopeful to see Will Bruin and Jermaine Taylor rejoin the lineup, though the same can be said about their feelings the previous two matches. Should the duo return, we'll likely see defender AJ Cochran and forward Omar Cummings relieved of their duties. Cochran has continued to improve alongside David Horst and put in decent performances in the center of defense with a few shaky moments. For the most part, Cummings has paired well with Barnes though the two can occasionally be found overlapping on runs, nerfing attacks going forward. Returning to a more consistent lineup (one that lasted several games after the DaMarcus Beasley/Garrido signings) could help propel the Dynamo at home, where Houston have proven more threatening.
As we discussed earlier in the week, the Dynamo have work cut out for them but it's not impossible quite yet. A draw or loss at home will effectively be the end of their playoff campaign but a win may serve as a catalyst. A return to lineup consistency (and maybe a sacrifice to quell the anger of the injury Gods) may be what Houston needs going forward.
The Dynamo host Chicago Fire on Sunday, September 28th at 2:00PM. Tickets are still available here and the broadcast can be seen on CSN-Houston Plus and UniMas.