Cougar Place Drive, Houston, Texas. For the band of brothers and sisters who made the long trip to Houston that fateful weekend in early November 2008, it is a street none of us will ever forget.
As the New York Red Bulls sneaked into the last spot in the playoffs, the team was placed as the last seed in the Western Conference for which rules are too complex at this point to explain. With that said, that placement put RBNY into a 2 game (home and home) series with the two-time defending MLS Champions, the Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo were a team packed with talent... Brian Ching, Rico Clark, Dwayne Derosario, Pat Onstad, and Eddie Robinson. Heck, Stuart Holden was only a substitute off the bench. This was a dynasty if there ever was any in MLS. In the first leg of the series, the Red Bulls took an early lead, but a late Kei Kamera goal gave the Dynamo the draw they wanted, putting them at a clear advantage heading into the home game.
With the aggregate even, we were able to rally a few people together to make the trip to Houston for Game 2. With improbable odds, but a warm weather destination in sight, a group of about 2 dozen agreed to head to the Lonestar State.
On Saturday morning about half the group met at Newark airport to begin the trip. Like any normal flight, drinking commences early on and the group was properly buzzed to go. A chilly stopover in Chicago where we physically had to walk out on the tarmac and switch planes was the only delay to our final destination... Houston, Texas.
We arrived in the space city (they are really big on space/astronauts there as evidenced by the above) some time in the early evening and quickly drove off to the hotel to meet with the rest of the contingent. Our first order of duty was to find some ridiculously awesome Texas BBQ. Well, it's Texas, where the people are big and the portions are even bigger, so that wasn't really a problem. We headed out to Pappa's BBQ and upon entering I met a cute cashier who proceeded to challenge me to eat a full BBQ beef dinner, a turkey po'boy, and a 24 ounce beer. $19.85 and two empty plates later I finished the job. Of course, she bailed before I could claim victory, but another Man vs. Food Challenge went to the boy from New Jersey. Afterwards, we hit up a few bars with pints of many delicious Shiner Bocks before heading back to the ranch or whatever hotel we were staying at. Per the norm, a group of the usuals had a hard time getting to sleep the day before a major game. At 3 AM, a group of us trekked to one of the greatest late night stops in the history of the world:
The one and only Kettle: 24 Hour Breast (I mean Breakfast, but that's what the lights say). When I say this place is great, it is fan-freakin-tastic. Top notch service, top notch food (breakfast/dinner, whatever), and just allowed us to be our ridiculous selves. It's like a Denny's but 5x better. The perfect place to wind down after a long day. After that fun session, debauchery further ensued.
Nobody felt the need to stand at the front desk at 4 AM, so the boys had a little fun in the front lobby such as Cliff riding the world's largest skateboard. At that point, it was time to hit the beds in ode to what would be a historic Sunday.
Gameday... is there anything better? With a 10 AM wakeup and 1030 out, everybody put on their club gear and we headed out to the stadium. Houston plays on the campus of the University of Houston at Robertson Stadium. When at capacity it seats just over 30,000 people... not a bad size venue for a MLS team. Upon arrival, we were directed to what might as well have been Oklahoma. We were way out there in the far lots of the stadium. We even had our own security escort... well 1 man with quite possibly the greatest cop 'stache of all time. Not the greatest of tailgate locations... a vacant parking lot, situated next to a gigantic electrical structure, but that was soon enough over as the march to Robertson commenced.
One of the more fun march ins in ESC History. Never had I remembered being booed this significantly entering a stadium. This is MLS... people boo away supporters? Well, they certainly did in this sold out stadium decked in a sea of orange. The Houston people came to see their side continue on in the playoffs, just like they did the previous two seasons, but today was a different day.
El Battalion (who I regard as the best supporters club in MLS) were in full force. Loud, proud, and with plenty of percussion. These guys know how to rock and roll. But, but... this was not there day. The greatest performance in the career of Dane Richards led to his first playoff goal halfway through the first half. A stunned Houston crowd was later silenced as a penalty kick was given to New York. Juan Pablo Angel took the ball and easily buried it in the back of the net. The Red Bulls now up 2-0 had us (ESC) in a frenzy. Some theatrics from Danny Cepero including a 360 somersault to catch a ball from Brian Ching who had a clear shot at goal got the Bulls thinking they could do this. As the minutes in the second half decreased, ESC and the rest of the contingent were looking at their watches in anticipation of something great. With about ten minutes to go, Dane Richards took a ball short of midfield and went on a darting run abusing Corey Ashe before delivering a perfect cross to John Wolyniec who one timed it to the far corner. Game, set, match. Two time defending champions... OUT. New York Red Bulls... to the conference finals. Wolyniec with one of the all time great celebrations.. can somebody say, "Thriller." That was it folks. A 3-0 thrashing. In my opinion, the best performance in team history. Something for the ages and now just 1 game away from MLS Cup... but first a trip to Sandy, Utah to face Real Salt Lake in the conference final.
Fresh off a victory against the league's top club, there was optimism amongst the traveling fans. That night, after some victory celebrating (including a water cooler dump), we got back to the hotel and the majority booked their tickets to Salt Lake City for what would be another historic night.