The last time D.C. United faced the Houston Dynamo, things went poorly. Other than a rehearsed free kick routine allowing Marc Burch to fire through a disintegrating Dynamo wall to briefly equalize, there was nothing good about the game for D.C. Houston won the game as a team, and they also won their individual battles all over the field. United's brain-dead, flat effort was best summed up by the throw-in goal, a play that would embarrass most Sunday league teams.
So, obviously, it was a bad night. It would be fair to say that the loss to Houston was United's worst performance of the season, even with the inconsistent nature of D.C.'s form. However, United won't be the only team taking the field at RFK known for having peaks and valleys. Since wiping the floor with us, Houston has picked up just 6 points from an available 27 (1W-3T-5L). While the Black-and-Red seem to go from extreme to extreme on a weekly basis, it is safe to say that Houston's highs and lows tend to run for numerous games. In other words, this might be a good time to be playing them. On the other hand, both teams will definitely be desperate for a win; the Eastern Conference's third playoff spot is totally up for grabs at this point, and both sides are in the thick of the race.
Read on as we get into what the Dynamo will probably look like Saturday evening:
Dominic Kinnear is likely to send out the following team:
The big issue for Houston is replacing midfielder Lovel Palmer, who is suspended after being sent off against Columbus last week. As Houston doesn't have another true defensive midfielder, this will require a substantial reshuffle. Geoff Cameron will likely play the defensive role, with normal left midfielder Brad Davis sliding into a central role. That's a big positive for United, as Davis is having an all-star season on the left wing.
The wide roles will probably be filled by Danny Cruz on the right and Colin Clark on the left, unless Kinnear opts to play Corey Ashe on the left (which would leave Clark as the slight favorite over Cruz at right midfield). If Ashe is used that way, he'll probably be replaced by Mike Chabala at left back.
Up front, club captain Brian Ching is approaching full fitness and has made two straight appearances off the bench for the Dynamo. However, with the amount of time he has missed, Kinnear will probably opt to keep him as a sub for another week rather than risk the potential for injury during a game that will be played before sunset in typically muggy D.C. summer weather. That means Cam Weaver and Will Bruin, the duo that repeatedly punished United at Robertson Stadium, should be out from the start again.
Houston has, through thick and thin, stuck to some clear principles. They value physical play and toughness, and try to play with a direct approach. That's not to say they defend and counter; the Dynamo will try to attack using a more English/Scottish style of play than we often see in MLS. That means being up for the battle is of even more importance than usual here. A game against Houston, even when they're playing poorly, is still going to be a fight. Being ready for this game psychologically is a huge factor for United, especially as our home form has been maddeningly erratic.
Another big issue for D.C. will be set pieces. While our set piece defending has come a long way, Houston is among MLS's best at scoring that way. Davis can give David Beckham a run for his money in terms of service, and the Dynamo lineup is chock full of big, strong, aggressive players. Bobby Boswell and Andre Hainault join Weaver, Cameron, and Bruin as aerial threats for the Dynamo.
While being 100% tuned in during free kicks is important, it will also be vital to defend properly and intelligently rather than having to resort to fouling. While Houston features little in the way of dribbling skill - really, Clark is the only player that's even decent - they do have speedy, pesky players like Cruz and Ashe that are perfectly happy turning 1v1 situations into a footrace, and that can often end in a foul too. Thinking one step ahead of the Dynamo wide men is going to be vital.
Attacking Houston, while not exactly as difficult as breaking through against Real Salt Lake, should be something United is suited to. In the nine games since we last saw them, Houston has conceded two goals on six different occasions. While they have not given up any more than that all season, teams are getting that second goal against the Dynamo on a regular basis.
The weak points for Houston defensively are Ashe at left back and attacking the gap between Boswell and Hunter Freeman with speed. On the former, Ashe is very fast but is not a natural defender and is very much learning on the job. Andy Najar should be able to cause him some real problems from a decision-making standpoint. The other avenue of attack is mostly reliant on Freeman having just average pace and Boswell, for all his qualities, not being the most mobile center back. Chris Pontius tends to attack that channel anyway rather than rounding the outside back, so both wingers should be able to make some noise.
There is also an opportunity for Josh Wolff to continue his habit of being the guy that delivers our best passes. With Palmer out, Wolff can drop in between the lines. While Cameron is a pretty good player to place in this role - personally, I think it might be where he's best, as it splits the difference between the central midfield and center back roles he's held - there will still be some apprehension between him and the Dynamo back four due to how he's barely featured there in recent times.
Even if Wolff can't find the space to create on his own, he may be able to drag Hainault out of their back four, breaking the Dynamo's shape and opening up a big lane for Najar, Blake Brettschneider, Charlie Davies or even a central midfielder (whoever we start) to come through late. Sometimes, it's all about what you do without the ball.
Much like the game against San Jose, I see this as a great chance to tell the rest of the league that this young team can be consistently good. However Machiavellian the result at Rio Tinto was, it was a draw on the road against one of MLS's best teams. Now is the perfect chance to follow a good result up with a win at home over a team we are even with in the standings. In MLS, the teams that win at home against those in their cohort end up moving up a rung before too long. Houston is just one point ahead of United, and we've got two games in hand.
The bottom line is that playoff teams win this game, and it's also a great chance to right the wrong that was the loss to San Jose in our last home game.