New stadium, new hope
Can Houston christen its new home with a win? Plus: Impact keeps improving
When Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium hosts its first official game this weekend, it will be the latest in a long line of stadium unveilings for Major League Soccer. Backs will be slapped by the dignitaries present, high-fives will be exchanged by fans and the Houston Dynamo players will no doubt feel a buzz as they take in the sight of their new home packed with 22,000 true believers. Yet for a handful of Houston players and coaches, the joy of their stadium dream coming true will resonate even more deeply.
It was more than six years ago that the San Jose Earthquakes were relocated to Houston, and it was done so on the premise that the Bayou City could deliver what the City of San Jose couldn't, namely a soccer specific stadium. Ultimately, that goal came to pass, but not before what seemed to be an interminable wait. Four years elapsed between the time of the move and the groundbreaking of the stadium, with a fair number of false starts in between. Then there was the additional two years until construction was completed. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking for the players.
"The longer it took to get the stadium done, the more you began to wonder, 'Am I going to be around for this? Am I going to be able to be on the field when they actually have the stadium?'" said Houston captain Brian Ching, who was among the players who made the move from San Jose. "To finally have the opportunity to be a part of this, it's something I've always wanted as a professional athlete. Obviously, given my history of never really being in a stadium that the franchise could call its own, to experience that is pretty neat."
Not everyone who made the move east has been so lucky, even as the team won two MLS Cups. Besides Ching, Brad Davis is the only other player remaining from the Earthquakes side that relocated to Houston. Three members of the current coaching staff also made the move, a group that includes head coach Dominic Kinnear, current assistant (and former captain) Wade Barrett, as well as assistant Tim Hanley.
Kinnear, while lauding the fact the stadium has been built, wishes that more players who made the move east could have stuck around long enough to grace the field, especially given the sacrifices that were made in the beginning.
"That for me is the sad thing, because those guys who moved to Houston deserve to be here," he said. "We didn't know anything about Houston when we left San Jose. We all went there, and we had great success, and then slowly but surely, as it happens in MLS, successful teams break up for one reason or another. You want... those guys that made the move here to not just take part in the event, but to play."
Otherwise, there are nothing but positive vibes heading into Saturday's encounter with D.C. United. Even Barrett, who retired as a player after the 2009 season, doesn't sound the least bit upset that he'll have to take in the game from the home side's bench.
"There's no mixed emotions, I'm only excited," he said. "I can't say that anything is bittersweet because there's no bitter as far as I'm concerned. This is as long as the process took for us. No matter what I'm glad that we've got the stadium. The team has done well here in Houston, and I'm glad we'll have a place to call our own to kind of start building a history of our own."
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There will be other benefits beyond just having new digs. The Dynamo now have control over when they train and when they'll play, without having to make way for the University of Houston football team like they did at their previous home, Robertson Stadium. As Kinnear put it, "Our air conditioning will work probably 100 percent of the time. Just with preparation it helps a lot."
That doesn't mean there won't be challenges. For all of Robertson Stadium's faults, the Dynamo's regular-season home winning percentage of .677 is the best in MLS history. This was accomplished by making the most of Robertson's cozy dimensions, which placed a premium on winning second balls. BBVA Compass Stadium figures to be a couple of yards wider, but the current Dynamo side isn't quite as athletic as some of its predecessors, which had the likes of Ricardo Clark, Dwayne De Rosario and Stuart Holden in midfield. That could make the success Houston enjoyed at Robertson tough to replicate.
There is also a potential emotional letdown to be avoided. After completing its season-opening seven-game road swing on Wednesday in New York, Houston will need to resist the temptation of thinking that things will be easier now that there is a spate of home games coming up, although Kinnear appears to be ever-vigilant in that regard.
"Just because you have a lot of home games doesn't guarantee you anything," Kinnear said. "You still have to come out with the same attitude, the same focus, and the same willingness and desire to win the game. I think having the fans there, being close, having it nice and loud with the overhangs, I think that part of it will be special for the guys. But still in the end, they don't change the rules of a soccer game because you're playing in a new stadium. The other team is determined to do well, too."
Houston still has a talented side, as evidenced by the 2-2-2 record it has fashioned on the road so far. And one thing that won't change with the venue is the insufferable heat. Defender Geoff Cameron already told the Houston Chronicle that BBVA Compass Stadium is "an oven" and with Saturday's kickoff set to take place at 3:30 p.m. local time, players on both sides will likely suffer.
But no matter what the temperature is, the emotional boost of opening up the new stadium should do plenty to carry the Dynamo, at least in the beginning.
"You get out on the field, you see the orange everywhere, you see the pictures of the guys from the past on the pillars of the stadium," Ching said. "You see Pat Onstad, Stu Holden, Wade Barrett, Dwayne De Rosario, you kind of look around, and you smile and you think, 'This is pretty cool.'"
At least until kickoff.
While Backe mulls changes, Lade grows up: When a young player is thrown into the proverbial deep end, sometimes he sinks, other times he swims, and in the case of New York Red Bulls defender Connor Lade, there are moments when he does a bit of both.
Back on April 22, a spate of injuries thrust the 22-year-old defender into the starting lineup against D.C. United, and he looked completely overmatched. But in the two weeks since, Lade has proved to be a quick study. His performances have been more assured and his passing out of the back more precise. This was especially evident last weekend when he was involved in the buildup that led to Joel Lindpere's first-half goal; Lade also played out of some tight spaces to release teammates.
The young defender credits patience from his coaches, as well as some video analysis, for helping him to move on from his initial rough outing and become a contributor.
"I think [I improved] a lot on the tactical aspect, just knowing who was around me, and overall being aware of where those guys are and what spots I need to be in," he said. "If you lose concentration for a second, you get killed. That happened once or twice in the D.C. game, and just having that general awareness of everything on the field, taking pictures in my mind and knowing what's around me, that was one of the biggest parts. On the ball, being calm, simple and making quick decisions."
With Roy Miller getting back to health, it was thought that Lade's time in the lineup might be coming to an end on Wednesday against Houston. But New York manager Hans Backe hinted during Tuesday's media session that Miller wasn't quite ready to start, which means Lade should get one more chance to show how much progress he's made.
The bigger question for Backe is what to do with Rafa Marquez, who is back from suspension. Backe insisted that Marquez's role was as either a holding midfielder or a center back, but if the Mexico international ends up in midfield, Backe would be forced to tweak Dax McCarty's role despite the fact the former F.C. Dallas midfielder has been outstanding while deputizing for Marquez. Given the physical nature of Houston's game, it will be interesting to see how Marquez fares if he does indeed slide into midfield.
Marsch has Montreal on the upswing: For an expansion team, building chemistry within the group is one of the biggest challenges. The team is brand new, at least to MLS, and it's necessary to try and integrate MLS veterans with players who are new to the league. But if Montreal's 2-0 defeat of early pacesetters Sporting Kansas City last weekend is any indication, then the Impact have already made solid progress in this regard as the expansion side delivered one of the more impressive road showings this season. Even when the Impact were invariably put under pressure, there was a confidence about the team's game that had been missing during the opening weeks of the season.
For manager Jesse Marsch, there was no single explanation for his team's improvement, which has seen it move up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Rather, it's all part of a long process he has planned out, but one in which his players are becoming more comfortable.
"When you're a new team, you can't underestimate how difficult it is to come up with common mentalities, and visions and understandings of what we want to be as a team," he said. "We still have a lot more lessons to learn. But how we talk to each other, how we train, the tactics, all of it, it's all coming along in the right way, I feel like."
Marsch added that in recent weeks this greater sense of cohesion has been most evident when the team has had a lead.
"Early on we were giving up leads," he said. "Sometimes it was on the road and everything else. Now you see when our team gets the lead, there's not a sense of panic, there's a sense of poise to our team. We understand how to kill the game at different moments. We understand that even at crazy times when teams are throwing a lot at us, we stay organized and stick to the things that we want to be organized about."
In describing his team, Marsch is quick to pull out the "it's early" caveat. But if Montreal's form continues to improve, it could find itself in rarified air for an expansion team: a playoff place.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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