Both teams flying high entering the game
If Major League Soccer were to settle on a blueprint for a playoff series, it could do a lot worse than last year's battle between Houston and Chivas USA. Sure, there have been more dramatic postseason confrontations, with San Jose's epic comeback against Los Angeles in 2003, as well as Dallas' 1999 triumph over Chicago pushing the drama-meter into the red zone. But the confrontation that took place over two legs this past October had all of the elements needed to keep fans' attention.
There were clutch performances from the likes of Chivas goalkeeper Brad Guzan and Houston forward Brian Ching. There was the controversial ejection of Goats' forward Francisco Palencia in the second leg. And then there was Ching's last minute series-winner that sent Houston on its way to a championship and Chivas back to L.A. A postgame fracas involving several players only added to the bad blood.
Certainly a regular-season set-to won't reach those heights, but players' memories are often rekindled once they take the field, giving this week's MLS Primetime Thursday matchup (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) between Houston and Chivas the edginess needed for an interesting encounter.
Five story lines to follow
1. Maykel Galindo's odyssey
The story of Galindo's defection from his native Cuba during the 2005 Gold Cup is now the stuff of legend. Less well known is that Galindo toiled with the USL's Seattle Sounders for parts of two seasons, enduring a broken orbital bone along the way, before getting his opportunity in MLS. So far, the native of Villa Clara has made the most of his chance, netting six times for Chivas this year, good for fourth in the league. Given the offseason loss of attacking players like Palencia and Juan Pablo Garcia, head coach Preki is especially grateful for the speed and composure in front of goal that Galindo has shown.
"[Galindo] has pace, which is something we didn't have last year," Preki said. "To have a guy up top who can get behind the defense, it's a concern for the other team. And we've seen improvement from Maykel every game, and we hope that continues."
2. Houston's revival
Two weeks ago, the Dynamo were mired in the bottom half of the Western Conference standings with a record of 2-5-1. But a three-game winning streak has vaulted Houston back near the top of the table, and with no team in the West breaking away from the pack, continuing that run could allow Houston to close the gap on first-place Dallas.
As for the reason for the Dynamo's recovery, it's simple: After a barren spell during which the team score only five goals in its first eight games, a comparative barrage of six goals in their past three matches has made a huge difference.
"Scoring goals takes the pressure off of you a little bit," said Houston coach Dominic Kinnear. "Team defending has always been our strength, but when you're scoring goals, it helps you play with confidence."
3. Chivas flying high
The Goats have fashioned a three-game winning streak of their own over the past three weeks which included a 1-0 win over Chicago -- their first road triumph of the season. Chivas' defense has been especially effective during the streak, racking up three shutouts in that span. This despite the fact that players lost to injuries and Gold Cup duty have created a revolving door at the outside back spot.
"We've been pretty disciplined as a group," Preki said. "We've been pretty organized and our work rate has been high. Any time you work hard, and you combine that with some good soccer, you're going to be pretty successful, and we've done a good job of that."
4. Dynamo depth
When the Gold Cup claimed Dwayne De Rosario, Ricardo Clark, Brian Ching and Pat Onstad, the Dynamo's fortunes were not expected to improve. Yet Houston has managed to thrive in their absence, with the likes of Stuart Holden, Kelly Gray and Craig Waibel all helping turn around the Dynamo's fortunes. But with this being the third game since the Gold Cup started, the adrenalin jolt that comes with getting playing time now begins to wear off, and it will be interesting to see if Houston's replacements can sustain their high level of play.
5. Midfield battle
So far this season, it's been a midfield by committee for Chivas as Paulo Nagamura, Panchito Mendoza, Jesse Marsch and Sacha Kljestan have all taken turns defending and attacking. The result is a lineup that has been very effective over the course of the season, and given that Houston will be missing their central duo of De Rosario and Clark, the visitors would appear to have a considerable edge in that department.
But Houston's makeshift pairing of Richard Mulrooney and Gray has fared well during their teammates' absence, and given the tenacity they bring to the midfield, their battle with Marsch and Nagamura should go far in deciding the outcome.
Five players to watch
1. Joseph Ngwenya, F, Houston
Acquired in a midseason trade with Columbus, Ngwenya has sparkled for the Dynamo, scoring a goal in each of Houston's past three wins. The speed of the Zimbabwean international was a missing element in the Dynamo attack. His all-around play has been so stellar that Ngwenya is a cinch to stay in the lineup, even after Ching returns from international duty.
"[Ngwenya] has held the ball up well, and he's run the channels well," Kinnear said. "On the defensive side of things, he's gets behind the ball as quick as he can and works hard."
2. Sacha Kljestan, M, Chivas
When Amado Guevara was acquired in the offseason, the expectation was that he would run Chivas' offense. But a quick falling out with Preki led Chivas to unload the tempestuous star back to his native Honduras, and part of the attacking duties then fell to Kljestan. So far the second-year midfielder has played well, tallying a goal and three assists, and putting himself in the mix for a spot on the U.S. roster for Copa America.
3. Eddie Robinson, D, Houston
Keeping up with Galindo is a challenge under the best of circumstances, and with Robinson nursing a tender hamstring, Thursday's match hardly qualifies as such. That means that the Houston defender may have to lean more heavily on his physical style of play. If Robinson can't go, then second-year defender Patrick Ianni will have to step in. Although Ianni shares some of the same physical traits as Robinson, he lacks his teammate's experience. That should make him a primary target of Chivas' attack.
4. Claudio Suarez, D, Chivas
Although injuries and Gold Cup commitments have forced Preki to juggle his defensive lineup, "El Emperador" has been one of the constants, using his vast experience to hold things together in the back. But an ankle injury forced him out during the second half of last weekend's 2-0 win over Colorado, making his status for Thursday's match "day to day" in the eyes of Preki. If the former Mexican international can't go, then look for experienced reserve Jason Hernandez to fill in.
5. Zach Wells, G, Houston
Being a backup goalkeeper can be a frustrating existence, with opportunities for playing time scarce. But Wells has performed solidly this season when injury, suspension, or international duty has rendered Onstad unavailable. Wells has followed up his fine performance in the CONCACAF Champions Cup with steady play the last two weeks, and with Robinson hobbled, he'll probably be called on again to play a major role.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.