After taking a few weeks of the 2009 Major League Soccer season to get going, Houston Dynamo rose to the top of the table last weekend as their remarkable run of good form continued. Chivas USA, Toronto FC and Chicago Fire have all impressed for periods, but Dynamo have quietly put together a superb run and put themselves in a position to fly past the stumbling pace-setters.
Ominously for Houston’s rivals, the club appears likely to improve still further. Dynamo were already on a long unbeaten streak before acting in the transfer market earlier this month to bring San Jose Earthquakes striker Cam Weaver to Texas, trading him for Chris Wondolowski in order to provide cover for Brian Ching. While Wondolowski settles back home in California, Weaver’s blistering start in Dynamo orange will have Houston’s playoff rivals worried.
As the visit of Real Salt Lake approaches, the Dynamo are in confident mood. Are they now a certainty for the playoffs?
The way from San Jose
Houston Dynamo are a real powerhouse of American soccer over the last few years. In 2006, the club snared MLS Cup, repeating the feat in 2007. Winning back to back titles was no small achievement for a club which suffered relocation in 2005. The franchise was moved due to its inability to find a soccer-specific stadium. The previous holders of the Earthquakes name in San Jose (revived in California in 2007), Houston debuted in Major League Soccer in the 2006 season, the Quakes’ players remaining under the guidance of coach Dominic Kinnear. One name change (1836 to Dynamo) and two titles later, Kinnear is still in post and the Dynamo are on fire again.
They have earned a reputation for efficient, physical football. Strikers Kei Kamara and Brian Ching lead the line strongly and ensure that the Dynamo are always a threat from set pieces. US international Ching in particular is consistently dangerous from corners, contributing headed goals for fun. Kinnear has continued this burgeoning tradition by securing the signature of strong English forward Ade Akinbiyi (capped for Nigeria), a fixture in the Football League since 1993. 34-year-old Akinbiyi now has eight Dynamo appearances to his name but is yet to find the back of the net.
Houston’s start to the 2009 season was a little untidy as the side took a few weeks to really get going. They kicked off with draws at home to Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls and defeats at San Jose Earthquakes and DC United. Two points from those games represented a dismal start, given Crew’s equally slow start and the now obvious lack of quality offered by RBNY and the Earthquakes.
Dynamo’s winning streak
We needn’t have worried. Now in Week 14, Houston Dynamo sit proudly atop MLS, looking down on the season’s early form teams. Chicago Fire and Chivas USA looked the real deal, but the Dynamo juggernaut has methodically hauled them in and eased past. They are currently sitting on a ten-game unbeaten streak which now boasts eight wins in the last nine games, including five wins not out since revenge against the Earthquakes in May.
After seeing off Colorado Rapids, New England Revolution, FC Dallas and San Jose, the Dynamo’s last four victories were impressive. Far from taking advantage of cannon fodder as they gunned down Chivas, Houston beat previously excellent Toronto FC, in-form Chicago Fire and closest challengers Chivas before picking off a slightly improved FCD at Pizza Hut Park last weekend. Six points in Week 13 saw the Dynamo move within range of Chivas and then join them on 27 points. This Saturday they host Real Salt Lake at Robertson Stadium and will be confident of extending their winning run to six against a side with one win and five defeats from seven road games this term.
Houston’s success at this relatively early stage of the season is largely down to the fact that their big players are stepping up and doing exactly what has been asked of them. Striker Brian Ching has played well and chipped in with four goals and an assist in his eight MLS appearances. Kei Kamara has three goals to his name, while at the other end Pat Onstad has been keeping Dynamo’s opponents out. The 41-year-old goalkeeper has defied his advancing years to put in some excellent performances during Houston’s unbeaten run.
In front of Onstad, Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron have been consistent starters in defence and have ably protected their goalkeeper along with Richard Mulrooney, whose rasping goal on Saturday doubled Houston’s lead in an eventual 3-1 win over Texan neighbours FC Dallas.
Brad Davis (7 assists) and Andrew Hainault (2) have developed a knack of loading the forwards just at the right time, a trait which won’t have gone unnoticed by their colleagues. Sitting on top of the Dynamo scoring chart alongside Ching is Houston’s man of the moment, Stuart Holden. Born in Scotland but raised in Houston, Holden spent time on the books of Sunderland before returning to Texas to join the Dynamo for the 2006 season. He has four goals to his name this season, including crucial winners against Chicago and Chivas, with a lovely calm finish last week.
The recipe at Robertson Stadium is an impressive one: a good goalkeeper, strong defenders, a physical and efficient forward line and players scoring from all over the team.
Weaver inspires Dynamo confidence
Unsurprisingly the mood in Houston is radiant. Dynamo communications manager Jonathan Yardley told me that all is well in Orange world: “The atmosphere around the club is terrific. The players and coaches are usually a loose, confident group, but everyone is very focused when they step on the field, whether it’s to practice or play. That hasn’t changed a bit. The players expect to win every game, home or away, but know they need to be diligent and maintain their form to do it, because every team in Major League Soccer can be dangerous.”
In such fine form, and with the season really gaining momentum, one could be forgiven for thinking the Dynamo are a shoe-in for the playoffs. But other commitments are on the way, and there is plenty of time to slip up. Yardley remains cautiously optimistic, and insists that Houston are aiming for the top:
“The playoffs are a long way off, obviously, because we still have more than half the season to play. First place is where the team expects to be, as everyone at the club has high expectations, so hopefully we can stay there ahead of some very good teams. We will begin group play in the Champions League in August, so there could be times this fall when there is a bit of a balancing act, but I think the coaches and players have confidence in the entire roster to achieve the results they need. Last year, we did everything we wanted to right up until the home playoff loss to New York, so the hope is to finish in first place again in the regular season and hopefully make a run to the championship as we did in 2006 and 2007.”
Enhancing that atmosphere of optimism is the thundering start to Houston life made by new signing Cam Weaver. Traded from San Jose earlier this month, Weaver started the Dynamo’s two matches in Week 13. On debut, he put the ball on a plate for Holden to net the winner against Chivas USA. But in his second appearance in orange it was Weaver who took centre stage. After just 13 minutes of Dynamo’s win at PHP, Weaver, who played for Seattle Sounders in USL-1, bagged his first goal for the club. He later added a second to make it 3-0, rendering Drew Moor’s goal nothing more than a consolation.
With momentum on their side, Dynamo are a formidable force at the moment and look a certainty for the playoffs. But achieving Jonathan Yardley’s ambition of going one better and regaining MLS Cup is a much tougher task.