FRISCO, Texas - One of this weekend's marquee matchups will see Western Conference-leading FC Dallas travel to Houston to face Dynamo, who are just two points behind them in the standings. It promises to be the first of many great battles of teams from the Lone Star State.
Returning to the Bayou City are two Houston natives who play for the Hoops, forward Arturo Alvarez and defender Chris Gbandi.
Hoops head coach Colin Clarke is happy for both of his players.
"It's pretty special," he said. "They probably didn't feel a year ago that they would be going home to play in Houston anytime soon."
Both players are also excited to play in such familiar surroundings.
"I never thought this day would come where I would be playing in front of my home fans," Gbandi said. "It's exciting. There will be a lot of people there. A lot of friends that I grew up with are going to be there.
"The only bad thing now is trying to find tickets for all the people that have been calling. It's going to be great, walking out there in front of all those people and knowing that they support me and they have supported me getting to this point in my career."
Alvarez is equally energized about returning home.
"I really can't wait to go back home and play against Houston Dynamo, which is the old San Jose team," he said. "I always liked playing against them, my old teammates.
"I am really excited. I get to play in front of my family and friends. I grew up there. I went to school there. I really can't explain how I feel."
The Hoops duo joked about the amount of tickets each needs to accommodate the number of requests they have been getting. Both also laughed about how many people have come out of the woodwork asking for tickets.
"We need about 100 tickets," Gbandi said. "It probably won't be that many, but it will be close to it. I have high school friends and a lot of college friends that are coming. A lot of people I haven't heard from in a while want them also. I'll find a way to get as many people tickets as I can. I want everybody to come see me play."
Currently in his fourth MLS season and second with the Hoops, Alvarez has missed each of the last two games because of a sprained ankle he suffered late in the 2-2 tie at Colorado. He did play all 90 minutes in last weekend's Reserve Division game against D.C. United.
Before that, he had started all three games and had one goal, which came in the season opener against Chicago at Pizza Hut Park.
Last season Alvarez saw action in 24 games, starting 15 and had two goals with four assists. He came to the Hoops last January from San Jose along with Richard Mulrooney and a draft pick that FCD used on Drew Moor. In two years with the Earthquakes, Alvarez played in 26 games, seven of which were starts, and had two goals and one assist.
How does he feel about playing against many of his former teammates this weekend?
"Houston has a great team," he said. "That is a group of guys that just want to win. They work hard for each other and win. We have the same qualities here in Dallas. We are both good teams. Hopefully this will be a good rivalry. I'm looking forward to it."
Gbandi returns to the lineup after a layoff due to a red card he received two weeks ago against Kansas City. After missing last Saturday's game against United, he played the entire 90 minutes in the Reserve Division game on Sunday and is ready to return to the backfield and reclaim his starting spot on the right side.
This year marks his fifth in MLS, all of which have been spent in Dallas. The first overall pick in the 2002 MLS SuperDraft out of Connecticut was in the middle of a solid year before getting ejected against the Wizards, but looks ready to continue his strong play.
Like Alvarez, Gbandi expect Dynamo to be a worthy foe.
"Last year, obviously, they were one of the top teams in the league and they have pretty much the whole team coming back," he said. "Those guys are a great team. They have guys like (Brian) Mullan and Brad Davis who can get at people. It's a great team and we're looking forward to playing them. We want to start this rivalry off on a good foot and try to get a win."
Speaking of the rivalry, both players and their coach know it shapes up to be a good one.
"It's been a good rivalry," Clarke said. "We've been in the West together from San Jose to here. I think it will only grow in stature. I expect we'll be fighting it out for many championships in the years to come."
Alvarez agreed and even compared it to another solid MLS rivalry.
"I think it's going to be a big thing," he said. "I got the chance to experience the rivalry in California with San Jose and L.A. and that was huge. I think it will have the same intensity as that one. We're looking forward to it. We're excited. Hopefully we can go in there and get a W."
Said Gbandi: "Obviously, in the past, both teams didn't really like each other that much even though they were in San Jose. Now that they're four hours away, we feel that we're the top team here as far as being in Texas and that they're kind of in our backyard."
"It's kind of a statement game," he said. "It's early in the season. We want this rivalry to be one of the best in the league. In order to do that, I think that both teams have to go out there and perform for the fans. I think that's what we're looking forward to doing."
Steve Hunt is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.