The Western Conference's best record last season didn't save the Houston Dynamo from a quick playoff exit against the New York Red Bulls, and a shaky start to 2009 didn't help dim the memories of their short postseason stay.
Perhaps their last three results and a rematch with New York will.
The Dynamo appear to be rolling after winning three straight, and Saturday at Giants Stadium they'll look to extend their streak to four and gain a small measure of revenge against the Red Bulls.
Houston (3-2-2) rolled through the West during the 2008 regular season, but the wild card Red Bulls beat the Dynamo 4-1 in the two-leg aggregate conference semifinals on their way to an MLS Cup loss to Columbus.
The Dynamo's disappointment seemed to carry over to the beginning of their 2009 slate -- an 0-2-2 start that included a chippy scoreless draw with New York (2-5-2) on April 11. Two players were sent off -- Red Bulls fullback Carlos Johnson in the 77th minute and Houston's Mike Cabala in stoppage time -- and tempers flared as both teams remained winless through four matches.
Despite only managing a draw, Houston extended its shutout streak to 133 minutes, and it also hasn't conceded a goal in three matches since.
Lately, though, the Dynamo have found some offense. Brian Ching scored in a win over Colorado on April 19, Stuart Holden and Ching had goals against New England on May 3 and Kei Kamara notched the game's only goal last Saturday in a victory against FC Dallas as Houston's shutout streak reached 403 minutes -- the longest in MLS this season.
"I think we've been saying all year that we've been playing great soccer, even in the games we've tied and lost. We play good team defense -- that's our claim to fame: how hard we work," defender Bobby Boswell said. "Everyone is doing their job, and we just have to keep rolling."
The Dynamo do have a few injury concerns heading into this match as defenders Wade Barrett (calf strain) and Richard Mulrooney (facial fracture) are out, meaning Andrew Hainault will get his second start.
The Red Bulls are healthy, but they're tied with defending champion Columbus at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. New York, though, did look impressive in its last outing, getting two goals from Jorge Rojas among its four in the first half en route to a 4-1 victory over San Jose on May 8.
The Red Bulls had scored five goals in their first eight matches.
"Today was the game we were expecting to have a long time ago," said striker Juan Pablo Angel, who scored his team-high third goal. "Everything came together today, especially in the first half. I think the first half was a different class in terms of the way we played, how we closed them down -- we denied them the space, we denied them the ball."
Houston will want to keep a close eye on Angel. The Columbian forward had a goal in each leg of the Red Bulls' playoff victory over the Dynamo last season.
Ching, who leads Houston with three goals, has gone scoreless in his last four games against New York.
The Dynamo are 0-2-1 at Giants Stadium.