Playoffs present the final chance for Houston Dynamo to exorcise road demons
It's a statistic that makes for uneasy reading for any Houston Dynamo fan: 1W-9L-7D.
That is the Texan team's road record for the 2017 MLS season. In just about any other year 10 points from 17 road matches would be enough to prevent a team from reaching the playoffs, but that's not the case here. Thanks to a sparkling home 11-1-4 home record, the Dynamo have accrued enough points to lock up its first postseason berth since 2013 with a game to spare.
But the elephant in the room isn't going anywhere. That road record sticks out like a sore thumb and will surely be (or already is) the main talking point as the Dynamo head into the postseason, which will likely begin away from home.
So why the disparity in home and road records? What in the world is happening when this team leaves its downtown digs of BBVA Compass Stadium to play a game throughout the rest of the United States and Canada?
Defender Adolfo Machado wishes he could pinpoint an exact reason, but he really can't.
"It's tough to say. It's the biggest thing we have going against ourselves," said Machado to ESPN FC. "We know that we haven't been effective. We don't have any margin for error. Every game now is like a final."
It's a quandary made all the more curious when you consider the players that make up the Dynamo roster. There's left-back DaMarcus Beasley, a veteran of four World Cups and someone who has played in a Champions League semifinal. His full-back counterpart, A.J. DeLaGarza, won many a key road contest on the way to three MLS Cup titles with the L.A. Galaxy.
While the aforementioned Machado is in his first year in MLS, the Panamanian's past experience with Costa Rican giants Saprissa means that he played many a match as persona non-grata on the hostile fields of Herediano and Alajuelense. Another Central American, Honduran midfielder Boniek Garcia, played a big part in Houston's 2012 MLS Cup final run in which the Dynamo played well in all three playoff road matches before losing the final 3-1 to L.A.
DeLaGarza maintains that experience will bear out when the postseason kicks off next week.
"We have plenty of guys who have been in playoff games, who have been in World Cups. These are guys who know how to get the job done," said DeLaGarza to ESPN FC. "We know that in the playoffs teams are more disciplined, that they show more character. We're capable of doing the same and we can play on the road just like we do at home."
There are signs that Houston can do the job away from home. On Sunday they picked up a valuable point in a 0-0 draw at Sporting Kansas City, and with Peter Vermes' team currently in fourth place, there's every reason to think the fifth-place Dynamo could return to Kansas City for the playoff opener.
There was also a 1-1 draw in East Hartford, Connecticut, against New York City FC last month. While Patrick Vieira's team was not playing in their usual home of Yankee Stadium, the Dynamo looked the stronger of the two sides and could have easily come away with all three points.
Most notable, however, was the comeback 3-3 draw in Frisco against FC Dallas in the Texas Derby in late August. Down 3-1 with 20 minutes to play, a pair of Erick Torres goals helped the Dynamo rally for a crucial tie.
Despite all the ups and downs of Houston's travels this season, head coach Wilmer Cabrera has never wavered. As the second half of the season has worn on, the Colombian's simplified message has taken hold.
"Whether it's home or away, Wilmer always wants us to express ourselves on the field. He knows our road play is a mental thing. He might tweak a lineup depending on the opponent, but he's mostly staying consistent with his message. It's up to us to find more ways to score goals," said DeLaGarza.
For now, Houston has to live with 2017 being a "yes, but" kind of a season. Yes, they made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, but their road record was terrible. Yes, they possess one of the best attacks in the league in the form of Torres, Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas, but were shut out nine times away from home.
But the Dynamo's story can still change. A road win in the first round and who knows what could happen. The clean slate of the postseason is their last chance.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .