Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Secret to the Dynamo's Success

Is no secret at all, really. It's a reliance on two great concepts, concepts that are just as all American as apple pie, baseball, Chevrolet, and soccer.

1. Hard work.
2. No excuses.

If nothing else, 2008 was an important year because really marked a true increase in the number of competitions involving multiple MLS teams. Much of this is due, of course, to the new CONCACAF Champions League which has increased the number of MLS teams involved in international competition. Unfortunately, MLS sides like New England Revolution, DC United, and Chivas USA have put forth rather dismal performances in this new competition, one that is modeled on the UEFA Champion's League. So far, the Houston Dynamo is the only MLS team to avoid embarrassing itself in the tournament - a 4-4 draw at Pumas (first result ever for an MLS side in Mexico City), and enjoyable 2-1 victory over San Francisco FC, whom they had a draw against in Panama City, Panama last month. With a game in hand, the Dynamo have 5 points and sit, comfortably, at the top of their group alongside Pumas.

In the wake of recent DC United and Revolution performances, the spin has been to point the finger at injuries, international call-ups, fixture congestion, and lack of roster depth due to the salary cap. While I sympathize with these issues, I can't help but think in the end, those issues still don't justify the results, especially Revolution's destruction at the hands of Joe Public.

Earlier this season, the Houston Dynamo were dealing with several injuries, and despite those injuries and a slow start, the Dynamo sit atop of the Western Conference and have secured a playoff berth. Meanwhile, in the CCL the Dynamo have fielded some interesting starting squads:

At Pumas last week, both Brian Ching and Brad Davis were left at home in Houston. And Dwayne DeRosario didn't get a start. Prior to the match, most fans and pundits thought a 0-0 result would be a great result for the Dynamo, nobody predicted the 4-4 goalfest that occurred.

When Pumas rolled into Houston this week, instead of fielding a squad full of typical Dynamo starters so as to ensure picking up 3 points at home, Coach Kinnear give starting opportunities to several players who get little playing time outside of the reserve games: Chris Wondolowski (scored a goal in the 13th minute), and Mike Chabala, as well as starting Corey Ashe and Geoff Cameron, typical subs during MLS matches. More interesting was the presence of Guy-Roland Kpene, John Michael Hayden, and Kyle Brown, who did get subbed in for Brian Mullan in the 56th minute.

As both a journo and a fan, it was great to see these players get called up for an important international match, and deliver.

Okay, the point of that lengthy discussion - MLS clubs can succeed in the CCL and the MLS and SuperLiga, despite the international call-ups, injuries, fixture congestion, and insanely low salary cap. Thanks to the leadership of Oliver Luck and Dominic Kinnear, the Dynamo have been able to, despite these constraints that exist in the MLS, to create a successful squad with depth. They have been able to create a roster that opens opportunities for the club, opportunities that don't exist because DPs and other marquee players consume too much of the dollars available under the cap (can you say Galaxy?).

In my time covering the Dynamo, one thing has become clear: Coach Kinnear does not accept excuses. If you play for him, and you spend most of the season with the reserves team you're still expected to work hard in practice all week, and when you get the chance to start in an MLS match, or CCL match, or SuperLiga match, etc. then you better go out there and play like you've been starting all season, no excuses. You give it your all or you'll soon be seeing Houston in your rearview mirror.

It's a simple formula, put together a squad that will work hard and not use excuses to limit their drive and performance.

Now, I did mislead a bit. There are two secret aspects to this that I haven't cracked, but have theories on: (1) maintaining a squad that includes skilled players that don't get as much playing time as they would elsewhere, (2) getting the full potential of players who have not shined as well as at their previous clubs.

Let's face it, players like Chabala, Wondolowski, and Brown could be starting at other clubs, and even making more money in the USL or clubs in certain leagues in Europe. These players have good skills and can be relied on to step up when called upon. The success at Houston for players like Joseph Ngwenya (now at Antalyaspor in Turkey), Nate Jaqua, Kai Kamara, and Bobby Boswell (who was wrongly scapegoated by DC United), is a testament to Coach Kinnear's ability to get great play and performances out of his players. My theory is that Coach Kinnear is one of those great former player coaches, someone who understands and conect with his players without ever losing his authority and command of the team.

It's no secret when the team made the move from San Jose to Houston, many within the team were apprehensive about the move, and rightly sad about leaving San Jose. But despite all that, in their first two years here, they have won the MLS Cup and have a good shot at winning it this year. They also have a good shot at being the only MLS side to move beyond the group stage of the CCL.

Over a decade ago, the coach of another Houston team, Rudy Tomjanovich, proclaimed: "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!" A proclamation that has come to epitomize Houston's newest team, the Dynamo.

Yes, the salary cap in the MLS is pathetically low, yes there is fixture congestion, yes the MLS still schedules fixtures during FIFA breaks, and yes injuries can hamstring you . . . but the Houston Dynamo have shown that if you work hard and refuse to make excuses, you can win and you can succeed.

As always, you can hear my Dynamo report on the flagship World Soccer Wrap show, as well as my weekly show - World Soccer Wrap: Serie A, free by subscribing to World Soccer Wrap podcasts on iTunes.

No comments: