This is the quick and dirty edition, because I'm crunched for time. No surprise, it still ended up being kind of long. Maybe read it during the first intermission if you're watching the Caps humiliate the Lightning in the NHL playoffs?
For United to triumph, there are five things they'll have to do:
1. Avoid fouling in our defensive third: One way to defend free kicks is to not give them away. Houston probably won't have any particularly tricky starters on the field in terms of dribbling, so this shouldn't be that difficult.
2. Take pride in not losing 1v1 match ups in the box: Houston has a size advantage over us, so in most cases it will be less about winning the aerial battle as simply not losing it. Things like simply getting in the way, or a small bump that throws their opponent off, can be enough to stop a bigger, stronger player from taking advantage of a size gap. This will come down to focus and plain old will power.
3. Attack towards the right with frequency: Ashe is not a natural defender, and for all his speed, he can be caught out of position thanks to his lack of experience in the back. If Taylor starts instead, we're talking about a guy that couldn't make last year's United team starting in the left-center back role. Hainault is a solid player, but he can be overaggressive at times. We should be able to get a lot out of working that half of the field, not just out on the wing, but in the right-center channel as well.
4. Make the possession count: Houston doesn't really keep possession that well, and they aren't really bothered by that. They like to get up the field quickly, so it's safe to expect United to hold an advantage there. While this will help shield our defense, we have to make it do more for us than that. If we can create early danger while owning the ball, the Dynamo will be more reticent to get forward.
5. Be patient: This might go somewhat against #4, but DC has to avoid getting frustrated. Houston has been outshot numerous times this season, but can confound opponents by bending rather than breaking and then grabbing a goal against the run of play from a set piece. They're a maddening team to play against. While we can't be satisfied to merely keep the ball, it's of paramount importance that we understand that getting overeager with shots or trying to play the killer pass every time plays right into Houston's hands. It's about finding a balance between being reckless and being so patient that we never end up causing a threat.
Let's take a look at the likely Houston Dynamo starting eleven:
Andre Hainault (or Andrew...it seems to change every season) will start, it's just a question of where. If former DC United trialist Jermaine Taylor is given a start after a layoff due to plantar fasciitis, he would play centrally and Hainault would move to left back. Otherwise, look for speedster Corey Ashe to continue at left back.
The only other position that might be up for grabs is right midfield. Danny Cruz has gotten the bulk of the starts there and always plays enthusiastically, though he is perhaps not the most elegant player. If Dominic Kinnear decides to opt for a more skillful option, he could call on Colin Clark (apparently fully fit after having a torn ACL last season) or Jamaican newcomer Je-Vaughn Watson.
Normally, Kinnear can be expected to go for the hardest-working players that can safely adapt to the direct, aggressive style he wants out of his teams. However, Houston has struggled somewhat in the run of play due to being overly predictable with the ball. This should hardly come as a surprise, as Brad Davis is the only player with any real creativity in their front six. As such, and given that he'll likely have observed that DC is not the kind of team you can hope to beat simply by wanting it more, I would actually view seeing Cruz listed as a starter as a rather favorable outcome for United. It's not a slight against him; it's just a hope that the Dynamo give us a less complicated look, and Clark and Watson would add an element that otherwise wouldn't be there.
Speaking of adding a different element to your play, new Designated Player Sergio Koke has received his ITC paperwork, so he may make his debut at some point (a start would be highly unlikely). Koke is supposed to be a highly creative withdrawn forward, which is something Houston lacks at the moment. Fortunately for us, it's pretty unlikely that he'll be ready to play his best soccer this quickly after arriving.
The main issue with playing Houston is that they are the best team in MLS on set pieces. MLSsoccer recently underlined this with actual figures: three of their seven goals are directly from set pieces, and two more came following chaos in the box from a set piece. This dovetails quite well with our biggest weakness, which has been defending set plays.
It's not that the Dynamo are inventing new, creative ways to make something happen from corners and free kicks. Like just about everything with the Dynamo do, it's all about simplicity. Many of Houston's starters are big, strong, physically aggressive and brave players (if Kinnear goes with the aforementioned starting team, five of his ten field players will fit that description), and Davis is extremely consistent with his placement from just about anywhere on the field.
In our predictions, I picked against the Black-and-Red for the first time this season. It's not that I fear Houston in particular; in the run of play, I would be very disappointed if we didn't control this game. It's entirely about our biggest weak spot and their main strength being set pieces. Ultimately, it would take a very big step forward from us as a team on set pieces to keep Houston at zero. Add in the short rest, and it seems unlikely to me that we'll have sorted out this major issue.
If Houston is going to probably score a goal or two on us, that means we have to bag a few goals ourselves if we want to avoid our customary loss at Robertson Stadium (what is it about Texas and United?). I do expect us to find some success attacking tonight - we have a pretty notable advantage in quickness over Houston's defensive players - but it has to amount to something, and early on to boot. Given the jumbled nature of the Eastern Conference, stealing points on the road may end up being crucial for us come fall, and to do that we're going to nee a more potent attacking display than we've seen of late (especially without Branko Boskovic).