For the first time since 2017, Houston Dynamo FC have made it to the Western Conference Semifinals.
On Saturday night, the Dynamo continued their 2023 renaissance under Ben Olsen, taking down Real Salt Lake in a penalty kick shootout after a hard-fought 1-1 draw in regulation. After losing a shootout in Match 2 of their Round One Best-of-3 series, Houston didn't have to wait long for their redemption.
"There's a certain resiliency that they had," said Olsen of his team after the match. "... We revamped the team [this offseason], but we revamped it with winners and guys that have been around in these types of games, been in championships, have won championships. ... I think that really helps."
Houston's veterans again were the difference makers; Héctor Herrera and Corey Baird linked up for their goal, and Steve Clark came up big in the shootout. However, it was 24-year-old Griffin Dorsey who took the decisive spot kick to send Houston through to the Conference Semifinals against Sporting Kansas City.
"All I know is I got the nod and that was the moment that I wanted," said Dorsey, who was selected to take the deciding spot kick ahead of the likes of Herrera. "It's a testament to Ben believing in me, and I hold that tight to my heart."
The Dynamo have played some of the most fluid, attractive soccer in MLS this season. It shouldn't be a surprise, though, that under Olsen's guidance they've also incorporated the gritty, grind-it-out mentality he was known for as a player and during his coaching tenure with D.C. United.
That mentality proved crucial in their Round One win.
"I think the physicality was always going to be a part of their game plan against us. It would be my game plan against us," Olsen said of RSL's tactics. " ... They are a very resilient team. Pablo [Mastroeni] is again one of my favorite human beings. I think he's a fantastic coach and he always gets the best out of his players. So we knew it was going to be very difficult, and to keep them off the board is difficult as well."
Houston have been re-shaped this season by the veteran leadership they've had on the field. That was fully on display after Diego Luna equalized for Salt Lake in the 65th minutes. Defender Erik Sviatchenko, a 32-year-old former Danish international, gathered his Houston teammates in a huddle to regroup for the final 30 minutes.
"They're mature. They've been around the block, a lot of these guys," said Olsen. "I know it's a new team and it's still a little bit of a blank canvas of what we're doing here, but these guys have been around. There's been a lot of guys in playoff games and moments where they've given up goals and big matches. So I thought they steadied the rest of the game."
It's been a rapid turnaround for the Dynamo. After missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs the last five seasons, they've already lifted the 2023 US Open Cup and are now heading to the Conference Semifinals. Even Olsen is surprised with how quickly their fortunes have changed, having been announced as the new head coach just over a year ago.
"It's only been a year?" he laughed. "In some ways, we're a little ahead of schedule in that development process of building this team. But that's great. We can worry about sustaining it. But for now, we just want to keep it rolling."
As they shift their focus to hosting SKC after the international break, Houston aren't backing down. They're full of confidence and are secure in their new identity.
"We're just gonna keep rolling," echoed Dorsey. "I would say keep dreaming, keep believing."
Asked if the Dynamo are already dreaming of winning MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9, Olsen laughed.
"Why not? Why not? You’re allowed to dream!"