Houston's growth potential

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WASHINGTON – The master plan for the Houston Dynamo this weekend in the nation's capital is pretty simple.

Defend the MLS Cup. And shave.

In a repeat of the routine that accompanied their title success in 2006, the Dynamo have collectively sported "lucky" beards ever since the end of the regular season. Some players have managed to turn their facial hair into a quirky fashion statement, but for most, not shaving has merely given them a rough look that fits in well with the ethos of collective unity running through the club.

There is little room for glitz and glamour in the locker room of Houston – a team that is one of the most organized, efficient, consistent (and now hairy) in Major League Soccer. Other teams may grab more headlines with superstar signings on the player or managerial front, but it is hard to argue with Houston's record.

No team has won back-to-back championships since D.C. United in 1997, and to a neutral observer, Houston might seem unlikely candidates for a mini-dynasty. Yet that is the tantalizing possibility that lies in front of coach Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo going into Sunday's high-noon (ET) showdown against the New England Revolution at RFK Stadium.

In a season that saw big-name international recruits like David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel come firmly into vogue, the Dynamo have been able to quietly operate below the surface. However, if the final image of the season is once again jubilant and bearded captain Wade Barrett holding aloft the MLS Cup, then the absence of headlines will not matter a jot.

"I don't think people have really talked about us," Kinnear said. "We got a bit of notoriety in the summer when we set a goalless record (727 minutes). All the attention does turn to the designated player signings – rightly so because they bring worldwide attention to everything.

"I don't think we really care. We just try to do well and it is good we can fly under the radar a bit, but I think we get respect around the league for winning it last year."

Houston simply goes on with its business and does things its own way. That approach is certainly winning over the public in Texas, with a crowd of more than 30,000 in attendance for the Dynamo's Western Conference final victory over the Kansas City Wizards.

Just two years after moving to Houston from San Jose, the franchise has established itself in its new city's sporting psyche. The spirit of togetherness has clearly played a role in selling soccer to the Houston public despite the absence of star names.

"This group has been together for a while," Kinnear added. "We know each other inside and out. People's families have grown and that brings them together a bit off the field. It gives us extra stability and on the field that friendship carries over, albeit into a competitive nature."

Kinnear was born in Scotland – homeland of New England coach Steve Nicol and a fine breeding ground for countless top level coaches headed by Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson. Kinnear moved to the U.S. at the age of three, but he was a stickler for the kind of meticulous planning that Scots like Ferguson and Everton's David Moyes are known for.

That planning and preparation is what has made Kinnear successful in his current role, and his mind will not switch off from soccer when the season ends. He has already scheduled a soccer development trip to Spain to visit Real Madrid and spend more time in Britain.

But before then, there will be one more matter to oversee when his players scrape their faces clean of a month's growth after Sunday's final. Kinnear hopes the absence of beards will reveal celebratory smiles, not gloomy dispositions.