The Houston Dynamo enter Wednesday night's MLS knockout round playoff match against the Chicago Fire as fairly significant underdogs. While a Dynamo win certainly wouldn't be an earth-shattering event, there's a reason that they have four less points than Chicago. Simply, they're an average team.
Houston actually haven't been a great team since Stuart Holden departed for England, and yet, they managed to fight their way to an MLS Cup Final berth last season. When they got there, it was obvious that the LA Galaxy were the much better side on almost every level, but the Dynamo were never out of the match at any point. Even without their MVP, Brad Davis, the Dynamo defended well and were in the game until the very end. The Galaxy won 1-0 and lifted the cup, but Houston's performance in that game and throughout the playoffs was fantastic. They were clear overachievers, but nothing about their performances appeared lucky.
On the surface, this year's Dynamo team looks a bit better than last year's. Their goal differential is better, they have four more points, and Davis is healthy going into the playoffs. Their young players are a year more experienced and they have a much bigger stable of potential impact substitutes than they did last season. Geoff Cameron departed mid-season, but Ricardo Clark has re-joined the team, while the central defense partnership of Jermaine Taylor and Bobby Boswell is clearly playoff quality.
Unfortunately for the Dynamo, their opposition has gotten better as well. Houston's 49 points were good enough for second in the East last season, but 53 points barely has them in the fifth spot in 2012. Sporting Kansas City, who won the East with 51 points last year, has repeated the feat this year with 63 points. The Columbus Crew, who finished in sixth place, have 52 points.
This Dynamo team, even though it's healthier and more experienced than last season's team, is clearly fifth best in the East. They are, at the very best, the ninth best team in MLS. These playoffs are the biggest challenge Dominic Kinnear has ever faced as Dynamo manager, because this team is the worst team he's had relative to the rest of the league in all but one year -- 2010 -- of his tenure as an MLS manager.
With any other manager at the helm, save for perhaps Bruce Arena, this team would be written off entirely as having no chance of reaching the MLS Cup Final. Their best striker is second-year player Will Bruin, who is much more reliant on service from others to create his goals than the league's other double-digit scorers. Their sheer size and strength, along with the fantastic delivery of Davis, allows them to score at a high enough rate to win more often than they lose, but this team has no players who can create goals out of nothing by themselves. If their opponent defends properly, they're going to struggle to find the net.
The good news for Houston is that the Chicago Fire don't always defend properly. Their central defenders are very good, but hardly among the league's best. Austin Berry is a very good rookie and a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, but a rookie nonetheless. Arne Friedrich is an experienced German international, but he doesn't play in the Bundesliga anymore because injuries have limited his mobility significantly. Berry's athleticism and Friedrich's ability to anticipate attacks makes them an effective partnership from open play, but Friedrich's limited physical capabilities, along with goalkeeper Sean Johnson's occasional lapses in judgment, are going to make the Fire susceptible to set pieces, Houston's bread and butter.
Even without Davis' delivery they won duels in the air and scored off headers while up against some excellent aerial presences when they faced Philadelphia and Kansas City in last year's playoffs. Houston's strikers and defenders are big, they're strong and they can jump. But perhaps most importantly, they always seem to end up in the right positions, whether their headers come on set pieces or runs from open play. The Dynamo is so good at scoring on set pieces and via crosses into the box on counter-attacks that they generally don't have to take many risks going forward, especially in a knockout or cup-style competition like the MLS Cup playoffs.
Those strengths, along with Kinnear's track record in the playoffs, is exactly why no one should be shocked if the Dynamo upset the Fire in Chicago on Wednesday night. The regular season and playoffs are a different game in every sport, and league play is a completely different animal than knockout play in soccer. Frank Klopas has done a great job getting the Fire into the playoffs, but knockout play, up against a manager who is an expert in knockout play, is a different game. Peter Vermes, who got pencil-whipped by Kinnear after winning the East in the regular season last year, can attest to that.
The Chicago Fire were a better team than the Houston Dynamo this season, and deserved to finish above them in the table. Unfortunately, they didn't finish far enough above Houston to avoid a one-game playoff against a manager and team who is much more dangerous in this situation than they are in league play.
Houston haven't been good on the road lately and they haven't been good against Chicago, but is anyone really willing to bet against Kinnear, managing the league's set piece experts, in a knockout game?