Carson, CA – The Houston Dynamo open the 2012 season at The Home Depot Center, where it played its final match of last season. Only this time, the opponent has changed, and the stakes aren't as high.
Houston lost the MLS Cup final last year to the Los Angeles Galaxy at the HDC, and open the new season against the stadium's other occupant, Chivas USA, on Sunday.
The Dynamo ended last season on the short end of a 1-0 decision to the Galaxy, and their third trip to the MLS Cup in six seasons - and first loss - will put pressure on the club for another memorable season.
Coach Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo survived an offseason highlighted by the loss of veteran Brian Ching in the expansion draft, but reacquired the forward from the Montreal Impact for a draft pick.
With Ching back on board, Kinnear returns almost the same team that finished second in the Eastern Conference last season despite a poor road record. The Dynamo will be tested on the road early this year, as their first seven games are away from home. Houston will open BBVA Compass Stadium this season.
Houston was winless in its first 15 road games last season, but was undefeated in its last four and won its final three games. The MLS Cup was technically a neutral site, although it is L.A.'s home.
"There's definitely some confidence from the way we ended last year going into (this stretch), but with that said, the most important game is the one coming up," Houston defender Bobby Boswell said.
"We're not worried about the seventh game in this stretch or the May home opener. We're looking at March 11 against Chivas USA. If we can go out there and get a good result it will start us off well for the year."
Houston struggled offensively in the preseason, but midfielder Brad Davis has regained his health following an injury in last season's conference semifinals vs. Sporting Kansas City, and will be important again this season. He started all 34 regular-season games and three in the playoffs, but sat out the MLS Cup with a quad injury.
"I feel like I'm good," Davis said. "For the sharpness I may need a little more time, but I think that'll come pretty quick."
Houston just has to turn it up a notch from the preseason, as the chase in the East will be wide open again this season.
"Building up to (our opener vs. Chivas USA), it's been a pretty good preseason for us. Now we have to put the switch on because with the season starting this coming week, we have to be aware of it and ready," said Houston defender Geoff Cameron.
"Mentally you have to be sharp. You can't dwell on balls and turn off on plays. That's something we have to do better."
Chivas enters the new year looking for a return to the playoffs for the first time in three years, but second-year coach Robin Fraser faces a huge challenge in the brutal Western Conference.
The Goats finished the preseason with a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, and if the final tune-up for the regular season is any indication, it will be a long season for Fraser and his club.
"We have to look at our commitment level, our organization, our willingness to get into battles and to be able to fight through adversity," Fraser said.
Chivas did beat Houston last season at home, 3-0, and another win against the Dynamo might prove Chivas USA will be a little better than expected.