WASHINGTON - The Houston Dynamo are not Major League Soccer's best team. They finished in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, and had the second-worst overall record of the 10 teams which qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs.
But for yet another year, the Dynamo have proven to be the most difficult team to beat in the postseason. A 1-1 draw with D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Sunday sealed a 4-2 aggregate win in the Eastern Conference final, and sent Houston to their second consecutive MLS Cup Final.
The Dynamo's repeated playoff success has caused quite a bit of angst among a large proportion of MLS fans who feel regular-season success should lead to better postseason results.
I take a different view of what Houston has done, though. I think it's time to give Dominic Kinnear and his players their fair share of credit for what they have achieved.
This year, Houston won a one-game knockout at No. 4 Chicago, then eliminated No. 1 Kansas City and No. 2 D.C. on aggregate in consecutive two-game series. The Dynamo scored eight goals and conceded four in a total of 450 minutes of soccer played over a 19-day span.
Their longest period without a game since the playoffs began was the seven-day stretch between legs of the conference finals, and they only lost one of the five games they played. Even that loss was only by a 1-0 margin, at Kansas City in the second leg of the conference semifinal.
That is a record of which any team, regardless of seed, can be justifiably proud. But this year's results form just one chapter in Houston's deep history of postseason success.
Since arriving in Major League Soccer in 2006, the Dynamo have played 22 playoff games. Their record stands at 12 wins, 6 losses and 4 draws. That win total is greater than those of original MLS teams Colorado (11), Dallas (11) and New York (10), and is tied with New England.
In other words, it has taken just seven years for Houston to equal or better what four MLS teams have done in 17 years. And in those seven years, the Dynamo have made more MLS Cup Finals (4) than New York (1), Dallas (1), Columbus (1), Kansas City (2) and Colorado (2).
The only teams that have reached the MLS Cup Final as many times as Houston or more are New England (4), D.C. (5) and Los Angeles (8).
So what has made the Dynamo so successful? A lot of small things coming together to form a greater whole. Yes, the team plays a defense-oriented style, led by centerbacks André Hainault and Bobby Boswell. And yes, the team's midfield isn't the most dynamic in MLS.
But there's enough creativity in Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis to deliver quality service to forwards Will Bruin, Calen Carr and Brian Ching. And while the Dynamo have a well-earned reputation for being ruthlessly efficient on set pieces, five of Houston's eight goals this postseason have come from open play.
Above all, though, there is Kinnear. The native of Glasgow, Scotland (not that you'd know, given his lack of accent) is the only coach the team has ever had. That is a remarkable accomplishment given how many aspects of MLS' culture are transient.
In his seven years in Houston, Kinnear has instilled an impressively selfless mentality in his team. He has managed to keep a few veterans, such as Ching and Davis, while infusing the team with new talent such as Garcia and goalkeeper Tally Hall.
" We're not a team that goes about boasting and bragging about how good we are, or why we're winning or whatnot," Ching told me as champagne and beer flew across the Dynamo locker room. "It's a true team - there's not a lot of superstars, everybody comes in and they work hard. That's been the key to our success."
Davis called Kinnear "the guy that pieces the puzzle together for us."
"[Kinnear] prepares us extremely well, he brings guys in that are going to fit into the system [and] do a great job and fit into the locker room," Davis said. "Then it's up to us to go out and perform... And obviously it says something, because [reaching the MLS Cup Final] four out of seven years is pretty tough to do, and we've done it."
It was pointed out to Kinnear that the margin between success and failure in MLS - which is structured to create an almost NFL-like parity between teams - is remarkably thin. Time and again, Kinnear and the Dynamo have landed on the winning side of the ledger.
"I honestly couldn't tell you" why it has happened that way, Kinnear said. " I have the best seat in the house to tell these guys that I'm so proud to be their coach, and it's not a lie. Mistakes are made, but the effort to make up for mistakes is such a huge thing, and that's exactly what you need at this time of year."
Kinnear got that effort in spades, and now his team has a well-earned reward.
"Coming in fifth [in the regular season, the only thing we knew was it was going to be difficult," Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear said after Sunday's game. " I said to the staff and the guys [that] if there is a team that can get to the final in difficult circumstances, I felt this was the group that could do it. Luckily for me, they proved me right."
Houston's philosophy as a team doesn't mean it's the only way to succeed in MLS. Los Angeles has clearly proven otherwise, as its superstar-laden squad is also making a second straight appearance in the championship game. And it can't be overlooked that L.A. beat Houston in last year's final, showing that the Dynamo's success has its limits.
But as Kinnear pointed out, the Galaxy's latest era of triumph hsa come not just because of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. Less-heralded players such as Omar Gonzalez - whose midseason return from injury might be the biggest reason why L.A. is where it is right now - and Mike Magee have also played key roles.
"When you talk about any sport - baseball, football, basketball - it's always the same," Kinnear said. "Guys sacrifice for the group, and I think you have to have that."
You might expect there to have been some talk of revenge coming out of the Dynamo's locker room. But there wasn't any Sunday night.
"Is it a chance to beat [the Galaxy after] last year? Absolutely, but it's just another game," Davis said. "It's another opportunity to raise the MLS Cup, so that's all we're looking at - it's just one more game."
The closest I could get to any trash talk came from Hainault, who told me that "we don't want to have a repeat of last year - we want to win, and we're going to find a way to do it."
As Houston, Los Angeles and the rest of the American soccer community prepare for a December 1 rematch of last year's MLS Cup Final, there will likely be a lot of discussion about whether it's right for a No. 4 seed and a No. 5 seed to reach the championship game.
Whatever you may think of the format (and it has already been reported that it won't change next year), there are a few facts that cannot be disputed.
Houston eliminated the East's No. 4, No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Los Angeles eliminated the West's No. 5, No. 1 and No. 3 seeds. Both championship finalists made their runs to the title game by playing five matches in 19 days. From where I sit, those are pretty impressive accomplishments.
You may think there should be fewer teams in the playoffs, or you may think there shouldn't be playoffs at all, or you may be fine with the way things are.
Regardless, the least we can do is say that given the hurdles placed before them, the Dynamo and Galaxy have genuinely earned the right to return to Major League Soccer's biggest stage.