The Houston Dynamo, MLS Cup finalists in 2011, proved more playoff savvy than the Chicago Fire, who hadn't tasted postseason action since 2009. The visiting Dynamo won 2-1 on Halloween to kick off the MLS playoffs.
"Everyone has to keep their heads up," Arne Friedrich said. "We have played throughout the season with very young players and they did very good. We should learn from this season and the playoffs. Today you saw that the opponent was a little smarter."
The World Cup veteran German defender regained fitness to help a push in the second half of the season. The additions of Sherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe also ignited the Fire's season, launching a scorching run up the table.
Had Chicago finished with one extra point in the regular season, they would have avoided the Knockout Round of the MLS playoffs and skipped right to the conference semi. Instead they crashed out in the first match.
Logan Pause, who made way at halftime, says motivation wasn't to blame.
"I don’t think there where jitters tonight," Pause said. "This group was more than ready and focused for tonight. It comes down to a game of inches whether it is for or against you."
The inches went the way of Will Bruin. The sophomore striker netted a double. The first came from a corner kick, when Jalil Anibaba, his marker, slipped. The second came seconds after halftime. Ricardo Clark crashed into a tackle and Calen Carr quickly fed Bruin for the deciding goal.
"We are starting to gel," Bruin said of his partnership up top with Carr. "At training this week we were clicking and starting to figure each other out."
Bruin scored a dozen goals during the regular season. He earned the nod for a starting spot ahead of Brian McBride and Mac Kandji, who both came on in the second half after Bruin had done his damage.
"Will took his goals really well," Carr said. "He’s obviously an emerging star in this league and deservedly played great tonight."
Once the Dynamo went two goals ahead, the team could sit back and rely on six crucial stops by Tally Hall to grind out the win. Even when substitute Alex scored in the 82nd minute, Houston looked in control.
"They are a smart team with an experienced coach," Rolfe said. "If you give them chances like we did it is going to be hard to beat them."
Now Chicago is facing the winter off. Still, Rolfe maintains, the season won't be defined by this game.
"I know these guys have been working hard for a couple of years now and they should be proud of the steps they have taken to get here," Rolfe said. "Tonight we don't feel great but in the weeks and months ahead we will see how good of a season this was."
Houston, meanwhile, advances to play Sporting Kansas City, which it eliminated from the playoffs last season. The teams will play twice, starting with a match in Texas on Sunday.
"It's turned into a pretty fun rivalry," Bruin said of SKC. "I'm sure they are going to be out for revenge but we want to keep going so we’re going to keep battling."