There was once a time when the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo were two of MLS's hottest teams, but that sure isn't the case now. The Fire won just one of their last five games, while the Dynamo only took three points in two of their last seven contests. But despite their sluggish finishes, both qualified for the playoffs and are set to square off in the Eastern Conference Wild Card Round.
Unfortunately for the Dynamo, the match is in Chicago, which is has something in common every city in MLS that isn't Houston -- the Dynamo can't win there.
Houston hasn't won away from BBVA Compass Stadium since July 28, a run that includes a 3-1 loss to Chicago on September 2. They won just three games away on the year and their minus 12 goal difference on the road is worst among Eastern Conference playoff teams. No matter where they have gone, the road has not treated the Dynamo well and now they have to head to Chicago and win or their season is over.
Last season, their season didn't come to an end until MLS Cup, an experience they will be counting upon against the inexperienced Fire. Chicago hasn't been to the playoffs since 2009 and start a rookie in Austin Berry at centerback, the second-year right back Jalil Anibaba and Sean Johnson in goal, a 23-year-old who has never played in a playoff game and is already mistake prone. For all of the poise and steel that the Fire have shown this season and as much experience as Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo give them in the center of the midfield, Chicago's defense is seemingly asking to be exposed.
If there is any manager in the league who can attack that defense, too, it is Dominic Kinnear. He was arguably the most important person in the Dynamo's run to the final last year, pencil whipping every team in Houston's way, most notably Kansas City in the Eastern Conference final. This year, he has expanded his repertoire, too, experimenting with a 4-3-3 in addition to his more traditional 4-4-2.
Kinnear isn't short of options either. Brad Davis' devastating crosses, Will Bruin's engine, Boniek Garcia's dynamism and the Dynamo's continued excellence on set pieces makes them a handful, but now Kinnear has a revived Macoumba Kandji at his disposal too. The Senegalese's ability to drop underneath Bruin and act as an outlet, stretch the field wide or attack the goal has given Kinnear a versatility that makes the Dynamo more unpredictable than ever before.
That leaves Frank Klopas with quite the challenge, and a chance to prove himself as well. The jury is still out on the Klopas, whose managing career is just 17 months old and this will be his first major challenge. Kinnear isn't exactly the ideal foe to wade into the playoff water against, which last year's East playoff field and a decade of MLS history can support.
But Klopas does have home field and a favorable match-up working for him. Houston's inability to win any of the team's three clashes this season showed the problems that Chicago presents them. The Fire's defensive nature and ability to defend the crosses that the Dynamo are so fond of, as well as break quickly, left Houston with plenty of possession, but few chances and a defense that lacks in pace. Much of the matches were played at a snail's pace, hardly entertaining, but effective on Chicago's end.
Both teams will wait for the other to make a mistake, which the Dynamo did twice in their September loss to the Fire. If neither does, it will take an individual bit of brilliance to find the goal, which neither team is adept at, so the mistake is likely where this match turns.
On one hand, there is the Dynamo's shocking ability to shoot themselves in the foot away from Houston, no matter how experienced they may be. On the other hand, the Fire are set for their first playoff rodeo, and are backstopped by a goalkeeper who has never been described as dependable. It is a match asking for mistakes, if not snores. That is unless a tactical battle intrigues you. Advantage, Kinnear.