Six minutes into the last meeting between the Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact, less than a month ago, Ricardo Clark put his side ahead at the end of a pretty, ambitious move. The Dynamo attacked with more caution from the next 84 minutes and the Impact didn't know what to do about it. The game ended 1-0.
Their game back in June in Quebec was similar, though it featured a missed penalty by Houston's Giles Barnes. The Impact scored 14 minutes into the game, then added a second shortly after Barnes' miss. The Dynamo only got two shots on target in a 2-0 loss.
Given the Dynamo's home-field advantage on Thursday night, their recent win over the Impact and Montreal's terrible form, Houston are obvious favorites in their playoff game. Houston are going to find themselves in a world of trouble if they slip up early on, though. With both teams bringing a similar pragmatic, but impressive counter-attacking style to the table, Thursday night's game might be one in which the first goal determines the winner.
Still, it would be unfair to call either Montreal or Houston a negative side. These teams can both play ambitious, attacking soccer when they need to, but they're best when keeping their shape and playing on the break. They're also not great at doing that ambitious soccer thing when the other team isn't trying to play with them.
Both teams have some midfielders who can pass, a nice stable of strikers and fullbacks who are useful at getting forward and crossing. Neither camps 10 men behind the ball while refusing to attack on a regular basis. But they don't avoid playing to their strengths in the name of playing scintillating football to please neutrals. They're positive, but still more careful than most early in matches and they emphasize shape and playing on the break over pressure and possession when they take the lead.
They also have very intelligent, but slow defenders who can dominate games when there are midfielders in front of them preventing their opposition from playing direct passes early on in attacking moves. And they each have a second striker -- Felipe for Montreal and Giles Barnes for Houston -- who is better at moving the ball quickly and making late runs into the box than dictating tempo and making creative plays in tight spaces.
The biggest difference between the teams is at the center forward position, where they employ two very different types of players. Houston utilize the type of player most commonly associated with their style of play: an imposing, physical striker. Will Bruin has had trouble finishing this season, but he creates opportunities for himself with his large frame, both on the ground and in the air. His backup, Cam Weaver, is a less skilled but taller version of him. Speedster Omar Cummings provides a different option when Barnes is unavailable or Houston just needs something different off the bench, but they function best with a big body up top.
Montreal's Marco Di Vaio is a completely different type of player. Age has robbed him of much of the pace that he used to have, but he's still quick enough to beat most defenders (particularly Houston's Bobby Boswell and Eric Brunner) by half a step in a footrace. His value comes from his timing and positioning; he was caught offside more than any other player in the league this season, but that's because he's constantly trying to make the perfect run in behind the defense. He was third in the league with 20 goals and took an astonishing 118 shots, a giant chunk of them quality efforts from inside the penalty area. He doesn't do much in the way of bringing others into play or creating his own shot, but he's a lethal finisher who always puts himself in the perfect position for his teammates to find him in front of goal.
Because of Di Vaio's style of play, Montreal are a bit more lethal on the counter and more of a constant threat to score when playing defensively than Houston are. It's one of the biggest differences between the two teams, but the biggest difference of all might come on set pieces. With Brad Davis serving up the best dead balls in the league to Bruin, Boswell and Brunner, Houston are a serious threat to score on every set piece and have a way to generate clear scoring chances even when they're playing poorly. It makes them the much more likely team to equalize if they go behind, but Montreal are the more likely of the two to extend their lead if they go up in the first half.
A 0-0 draw leading to a penalty shootout or a 1-0 win for either team seems more likely than anything else, though, and the most interesting part of the game will be watching how -- if at all -- the Dynamo and Impact change from the way they played in the regular season. They've been solid, but ultimately predictable. Expect the team that scores the first goal to hang on to a clean sheet and book a date with the New York Red Bulls.