By AVI CREDITOR
There's the Juan Pablo Angel game-winning free kick in injury time that caromed off the post, the goalkeeper and into the net.
There's the time former team centerpiece Dwayne De Rosario buried a free kick to put a dagger into the team's postseason hopes. Twice. In the same game.
Then there's the fact that the team hasn't won two league matches in a row all season.
After seemingly being impervious to misfortune, the Houston Dynamo has seen plenty go awry this year and will miss the postseason for the first time since the club moved to Houston from San Jose in 2006.
"It''s been hard," Dynamo coach Dom Kinnear said. "There's ebb and flow with MLS, and I really didn't think this would be the year where we'd be where we are. I thought going into this season we'd not only be a playoff team, but a contender for the title, and to see where we're at now, it not only surprises me, it sickens me."
The margin between Western Conference bottom feeder and playoff contender for the Dynamo is smaller than most may realize.
According to the team's media relations department (via the Elias Sports Bureau), the team has set a dubious league record by losing on goals given up in stoppage time on four occasions this season.
Two of those losses came in a stretch earlier this month when the Dynamo had consecutive games against San Jose, Toronto and Kansas City – teams directly ahead of Houston in the league table – while the team was still in the picture for one of the lower playoff seeds.
"Every team goes on a run," Kinnear said. "We haven't. We never had that feel of confidence. There's been a lot of ups and downs, but the last month has been rough. The goals that we've given up have been very preventable, and that really makes you sick."
One of those preventable goals came against Kansas City on Sept. 22, when the Dynamo comfortably led, 3-1, at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. Veteran goalkeeper Pat Onstad slipped on a goal kick, essentially passing the ball right to Teal Bunbury, who dribbled in and scored to cut the lead and change momentum at the 60th-minute mark. The Wizards ended up winning on a goal at the tail-end of stoppage time.
"The Kansas City game was a perfect example (of the season in a nutshell)," Onstad said. "Me slipping on the second goal when we had the game comfortably in hand, and all of a sudden the game turns on its head.
"It's probably the most difficult season I've had in 23 years of professional soccer. Things that can go wrong have gone wrong. … It's been a pretty disastrous year."
Many pundits and Dynamo personnel alike figured that Houston would encounter a few bumps in the road this season. After losing U.S. national team midfielders Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark to Europe, it would have been stunning for there not to have been a negative impact; However, not many expected twice as many losses as wins and a minus-10 goal differential.
"The subtraction of players over the course of the offseason took its toll on us probably more so than we imagined," Kinnear said. "The one thing I wish we could've done was hold on to the two guys who played in the World Cup. It wasn't for a lack of effort."
The team also lost former captain Wade Barrett to the Houston coaching staff and assistant coach John Spencer to the Portland Timbers MLS franchise, but even so, the Dynamo returned a talent- and experience-laden roster and appeared primed to embark on another successful season after barely missing out on a trip to MLS Cup last November.
Injuries to Brian Ching and Geoff Cameron derailed the team after some early success, though, and the ever-changing lineups and lack of high-caliber depth finally caught up with the team.
"For a long time we've had a good core group of guys, and a few of them have walked out the door and some new guys have come in," said all-star midfielder Brad Davis, who has had to cope with losing De Rosario, Holden and Clark as part of his midfield tandem in the last two years.
"It's hard to fill those shoes. You start to get accustomed to what each guy likes to do. We knew what each guy brought to the table, we knew what one another was going to do, we knew the system we wanted to play and we knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. When you start to interchange and get some new guys in there it takes a little bit. We all have to adapt."
For the core guys that remained, injuries and off-field distractions lingered. Ching, for one, readily admits that being left off the U.S. World Cup roster took away his focus.
"I could have done a better job in leading the team," Ching said. "Dealing with the whole World Cup thing, I think my mind wasn't always in the right place this year. I'm a little disappointed in that, but I'm looking forward to finishing out this year strong and being a better leader next year."
Cameron, who was supposed to step into the midfield and become more of a contributor offensively, suffered a serious knee injury during the fifth game of the season in Chicago.
While the initial prognosis was that he would miss the remainder of the season, the injury turned out not to be as severe, though he still missed 13 games. Only now is he really able to embrace his new role.
"I was starting to feel a little bit more confident taking that role, and then the injury happens," said Cameron, who scored his second goal of the season last Saturday against D.C. United. "It's been tough sitting on the sideline and watching your team struggle. For me it's just good to be back playing on the field again."
While Kinnear hopes that his squad finishes out this season as successfully as possible, he already has his eye on a bounce-back 2011. He shipped veteran winger Brian Mullan to Colorado for Colin Clark prior to the trade deadline, acquiring a young, talented midfielder, albeit one who is currently rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament for the second time in as many seasons.
Kinnear has also been given the green light from the Dynamo's ownership group to spend some cash and bring in a big-name Designated Player who will raise the team's profile as it prepares to move into its new Downtown Houston stadium in 2012.
"It's been kind of fun to put a list together," Kinnear said. "It's great to have that financial backing behind you, but expectations can't spin out of control."
The search for Houston's newest DP is underway, but one can't fault Kinnear and the Dynamo for treading cautiously. After the Luis Angel Landin DP experiment resulted with the Mexican striker being cut in the summer, the team is going to do its due diligence to avoid another big-money flop.
"We dabbled in the DP area, and it didn't work out for us," Kinnear said. "With the new stadium and the new training facility being built, the emphasis is on a bigger name, but there does come some complications with that.
"If you're looking to spend a ton of money, it's going to be on the attacking side. If you ask every manager around the world what he wants, it's a game-winner, and the game-winner is a goal scorer."
Whoever that new player turns out to be, he'll have to mesh with the Dynamo's remaining core in trying to lead a still-proud franchise back to its accustomed heights.
"It's kind of a transition time," Ching said. "It's my job and Brad and Pat's job to instill that winning attitude on the guys that come in. We didn't perform this year, and we need to turn that around."
Were you surprised at the Dynamo's futility this season? What do you think Houston needs to do to become a cup contender again? Who would you like to see the Dynamo sign as a DP?
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