WASHINGTON, DC -- Whatever celebration there was inside the Houston Dynamo locker room on Sunday afternoon concluded pretty quickly.
By the time the media was allowed in, about 15 minutes after Houston clinched an MLS Cup playoff berth with a 2-1 win over D.C. United, Dynamo players and staff were methodically going about their post-game business. The music being played in one corner, which coach Dom Kinnear asked to be turned down so he could speak to reporters, wasn’t even that loud.
This didn’t seem like a team that was congratulating itself. It seemed like a team about to get down to business.
“Obviously we wanted to be higher, but it doesn’t matter,” veteran defender Bobby Boswell said of the 14-11-9 Dynamo’s fourth-place finish. “We’ve been the No. 1 seed going in and not done well and we’ve been the five seed going in and done well, so it’s all about how you handle the next couple of games.”
No MLS team handles playoff games quite like Houston, which has qualified in seven of eight years since moving from San Jose. Kinnear’s club has advanced to the MLS Cup final four times (winning two) and has the best postseason series winning percentage in MLS (.750). There have been four setbacks -- three times against David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the Galaxy in one-game playoffs in L.A., and a 2008 stunner against the New York Red Bulls that remains one of the most shocking upsets in league history.
Over the past two years, the Dynamo finished with 12 (2011) and 14 (2012) regular season wins. They then ousted higher-seeded opposition a combined four times in the playoffs. Kinnear’s team is well-coached, well-drilled and plays the sort of confident, mistake-free soccer that often triumphs when the chips are down. Whatever confidence first-place New York and runner-up Sporting Kansas City might feel heading into the postseason, it must be tempered by the knowledge that they’ll be joined there by the Dynamo.
“I don’t think we’re a team that you’d necessarily want to play,” Boswell told SI.com. “Depending on who gets matched up with us, I don’t think we’re a team that people are saying, ‘Oh, we’re matched up with the Dynamo. Good.’ It’s kind of one of those, ‘Oh boy, what are we in for?’”
Like last season, Houston will have to negotiate the one-game knockout round. The Dynamo will host the fifth-seed Montreal Impact (14-13-7) on Thursday (8:30 PM ET, NBC Sports Network). The Canadian club will be making its first MLS playoff appearance, having backed in on a 1-6-1 free fall. Anything is possible in a single match and Montreal did manage to win two of three against Houston this year. But regular season Dynamo isn’t postseason Dynamo and Houston will be heavily favored at BBVA Compass Stadium, where it has a 27-4-11 record in official competition.
If the Dynamo advance, they’ll meet the Supporters Shield-winning Red Bulls in the two-game Eastern Conference semifinals. New York defeated Houston three times this year by a combined 9-1 score.
“The law of ratios would maybe say we’re due to owe them one,” Boswell said. “But you never know what will happen. It’s all about how you prepare.”
Houston has prepared by having to perform in a playoff-like crucible since early July, when it fell to fifth place following a seven-game winless skid. It played .500 soccer over the next couple of months before finishing the regular season on a 4-1-2 roll. The only loss during that stretch run came against New York.
“I think at the end here we’ve gotten relatively healthy and we’ve had a bigger squad to pick from,” Kinnear said. “I think during the year our team, like others, had problems with qualifiers, injuries, so I think when we hit that bad patch in the second third of the season we were missing a lot of guys and were a little inconsistent with our lineup. I think now the last little bit, we’ve been a little more consistent with our lineup and our results show that we have a good team.”
Kinnear learned Tuesday that central defender Jermaine Taylor will miss the playoffs with a broken left foot. Eric Brunner will fill in. But the Dynamo have been mixing and matching for years and likely won't be flustered by the change.
"You never want to say that you're expendable, but realistically Dom has asked guys to come in and do things ... and they've done them admirably," Boswell said. "I give Dom a lot of credit for the reason this team continually, year-in and year-out, is competitive at the end of the year."
Flank midfielders Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia missed time this season, center midfielder Adam Moffat was traded to Seattle for Servando Carrasco and the partnership between forwards Will Bruin and Giles Barnes (who has played in midfield on occasion) has taken time to gel. The numbers aren’t there just yet (Bruin has eight goals but none in the past four games while Barnes has nine but only one in his past five), but Kinnear said he thinks they’re rounding into form.
“We didn’t play [Bruin and Barnes] together up front in preseason at all. Then a couple of injuries made us kind of force that move and I think they formed a good partnership,” the manager said. “They seem to get along pretty well off the field and I think when they’re clicking and they’re close together and they’re of the same mind, they’re a very good pair.”
Houston’s attack (41 goals) was the least productive of the 10 playoff teams. That should represent a red flag. But postseason games are tighter, and sometimes the winning side needs only one goal. A few big saves from Tally Hall, a deadly free kick from Davis and the right tactics easily could make the difference. “When you get to the playoffs, it’s anybody’s game,” Kinnear said. “We’ve seemed to perform well in the playoffs. It’s going to be difficult, as we know. I don’t think we’re going to surprise anybody. … Now the difficult road starts again.”