D.C. United overcame the New York Red Bulls in a battle of wills, but their next opponent is much stronger mentally even if they lack the array of star players. Beating the Houston Dynamo will be a very different test of United's ability to stay focused and get the simple things right.
To just about any MLS observer that isn't a D.C. United fan,
Wednesday Thursday's second leg win at home away over the New York Red Bulls was some kind of seismic shock. Virtually every observer said that NYRB had a huge advantage after the first leg ended 1-1 (a leg that, allegedly, the Vegas odds had NYRB also winning). You'd think United was Toronto FC and the Red Bulls were...well, anyone but MLS's biggest loser team.
The doubts about the capital club continue. Finding anyone that isn't a hardcore DC partisan to favor us over the Houston Dynamo is like finding a needle in a haystack. Never mind our nine-game unbeaten streak. Never mind the slew of hardships - both forced upon us and self-inflicted - United dealt with to get to this point. Never mind the fact that Houston was the 9th best team to make the playoffs, or the fact that they've played five more games than us since the summer (four in the CONCACAF Champions League, plus a first round playoff game). Ignore it all: The popular wisdom is that DCU has as much chance to beat the Dynamo as you or I do of winning the lottery.
None of this is to say that Houston has no reason to be confident. Dominic Kinnear has emerged as MLS's top playoff coach over the past few years. His team is able to change tactics as needed and has an unshakeable self-belief in knockout competition. They have also been a difficult team for United over recent years, and "away vs. Houston" is our toughest fixture historically (9 visits, 8 losses, 1 tie).
On the other hand, Ben Olsen has talked about wanting this new generation of United players to make their own history and join the legends of the past, rather than simply living in their shadow. That's why we've seen the house-cleaning that took place in 2010 and 2011: It was time for players to come in who could carry the weight of expectation that comes with putting on a DC jersey. Those four stars above the badge don't weigh more than an ounce or two on a scale, but for the wrong players they were a psychological ton to carry. This year's team is the first since 2007 able to thrive under that burden.
With all that grand talk about expectation and psychology out of the way, let's look at the nuts and bolts. Historically, the Dynamo are thought of as a pure 442 side. They've used a diamond in the past, and in more recent years preferred a flat line. This season, however, Kinnear has made a series of changes. The flat 442 wasn't working, and Oscar Boniek Garcia's arrival allowed Kinnear to move to a 433. That was successful for a little while, but Houston again started to struggle once teams figured things out.
That brings us up to the last month or two, where another new signing - former Dynamo star and World Cup goat Ricardo Clark - allowed Kinnear to make another move. The Dynamo have sort of gone back to their roots, but have split the difference between the diamond and the flat 442. Enter the 4132:
Orange isn't a free option at This11.com, so you'll have to live with red plus yellow. They're, uh, deconstructed orange jerseys.
Houston's 4132 is different from the one we used for much of the season; instead of attacking responsibility falling to the row of three and the defensive midfielder being purely defensive, Houston employs a Y-shape that allows the wingers to do the attacking. The central midfielder supports the attack, and the defensive midfielder has the option of bursting forward from deep (with the central midfielder covering his spot). Defensively, Houston will drop their wingers, who will also tuck in to provide more of the T-shape that we used.
So the roles are apparent, but who will fill them? There are some real question marks for Houston due to injury and fatigue. Kinnear has said that he may be forced to use some new starters simply due to the congested schedule they've been dealing with (games on 10/27, 10/31, 11/4, and 11/7; tomorrow's match will make it five in fifteen days, which is brutal). Houston's only starting eleven change in their three playoff games was forced by injury, meaning that just about every first-choice player has seen at least 200 minutes of do-or-die soccer since Halloween.
That injury was to center back Jermaine Taylor, who tweaked his knee while blocking a shot in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal. Taylor is listed as probable in today's injury report, but he probably isn't 100%. If he can't play, Andre Hainault will get the nod alongside former United favorite Bobby Boswell.
Hainault could also come in at right back, where Kofi Sarkodie is fully fit but is also the one glaring weak spot in the Dynamo line-up. Kinnear's habit over the years has been to rotate fresh legs in for his lesser players while keeping the spine of his team intact. Rookie Warren Creavalle and his De La Soul throwback hair is the likely choice if Sarkodie is held out and Hainault is needed centrally.
In the midfield, Ricardo Clark gritted his teeth and played through an adductor strain picked up following a lunging tackle in Kansas City. He's listed as questionable, and it's an injury that could really impact Clark's style of play. Kinnear may have no choice but to make a move here, especially after seeing what happened to the San Jose Earthquakes when they opted to start Victor Bernardez only to see him aggravate his injury in the first 10 minutes of their season-ending loss to the LA Galaxy.
The choice to replace Clark will tell us a lot. The smart money would be on Luiz Camargo. The Brazilian would replace Clark's defensive focus, but doesn't cover as much ground. If Camargo plays, look for Moffat to play alongside him in a flat 442. Camargo simply can't play the forward destroyer role Clark has, so a tactical adjustment would be necessary.
The more attacking choice would be to use Je-Vaughn Watson, but that would probably open Houston up more than Kinnear would like. Watson is a skillful player, but generally doesn't end up producing much end product and is often a real liability defensively. I'd be shocked to see him out there, and if we do we should assume that Houston believes they can put hang three or four goals on us and end the tie in the first leg.
Finally, and possibly most significantly, Houston has an injury up front. Calen Carr has been the best partner for Bruin and is a real pest of a player, but he was forced off with a hamstring strain in the 33rd minute at KC. He's listed as questionable, but Kinnear will again want to avoid the risk of losing a substitution to an injury.
Kinnear's options are veteran Brian Ching and winger/forward Macoumba Kandji. They're very different players: Ching is a target man at his best playing with his back to goal and looking to set up teammates with his underrated passing skills, while Kandji prefers to face goal and dribble at defenders. Kandji was the player that replaced Carr in KC, but then Houston also changed to a 451 (with Kandji wide left) at the same time.
My money is on Ching tomorrow. His approach to playing underneath is different from what we saw out of Thierry Henry, and Kinnear will know that Marcelo Saragosa won't be able to harass Ching out of playing his game as easily. There's also the added benefit of Ching adding to the Dynamo's threat on set pieces, something the lanky Kandji simply doesn't bring to the table. Finally, there's consistency: Ching is a reliable player, while Kandji is the kind of player who is either electric or anonymous. Houston can't risk carrying a passenger and squandering home field advantage.
I mentioned the possibility of Houston playing a flatter 442 when discussing Camargo, and it's actually a possibility even if Clark does play. Houston's 4132 was worthwhile in allowing Clark to chase after deep-lying metronomes like Pavel Pardo and KC's choices there (Julio Cesar in the first leg, Oriol Rosell in the second). That role doesn't exist for us, so Clark would be roving forward looking to tackle players that don't set our rhythm. It might actually suit Houston more to play Clark/Camargo alongside Moffat and let those two go to battle against Saragosa and Perry Kitchen rather than include a role on the field that doesn't have an express purpose.
The Dynamo are, in a lot of ways, the opposite of the Red Bulls. They are well-coached, as I've said, and they are a collective unit on and off the field. Mentally, they're not going to self-destruct like NYRB obviously was going to all along.
The differences extend to their way of playing. NY wanted to hold possession and looked to play through the middle of the field. Their tucked-in midfield - featuring wide men that see themselves as central players - and reliance on Henry really underlined that. Houston, on the other hand, prefers to play down the wings and is far more direct than the Red Bulls. Davis and Garcia are their key creators, and the overlapping threat of Corey Ashe (even if his crossing isn't accurate, he's an extra player to have to deal with) is an element NYRB didn't offer for much of the two legs.
Shutting down Davis and Garcia will be the biggest job for United. They're different players: Davis is slower and thrives on his ability to find space and his tremendous accuracy as a crosser, while Garcia is very quick and creates on the dribble. Both come inside with some regularity, but their end goal is still the same. Davis is still looking to serve the ball in or shoot from distance, while Garcia is still hunting for seams to dribble through.
The goal for United will be to funnel play up the middle. Our fullbacks will need to play both players tightly - particularly Davis, whose elusiveness is a skill he developed to get around the fact that he isn't that good 1v1 - and our wingers will need to help out in clogging passing lanes. If a central player for Houston is on the ball, we want them to have to choose playing to feet down the middle; if it's a defender (particularly an outside back), we want them playing long balls. If Davis and Garcia are kept quiet, the Dynamo will struggle mightily in the run of play.
The other issue is Bruin, who is the leading scorer in these playoffs and has scored roughly 50 goals against United in the last two seasons. Bruin would actually fit our current approach perfectly: He's not the most graceful player, but he works extremely hard and he gets results.
Sometimes there's not much you can do about a player tactically, and the advice is simply to do something obvious very well. Bruin doesn't tend to run the channels, and he doesn't heavily rely on any one thing to score. Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic will simply have to do a top-notch job of tracking him, and United will have to offer up a strong team effort in terms of communication. It kind of sums up how you beat the Dynamo: You have to do the simple, obvious stuff really well.
Houston can also be a threat from long range, so United will need to continue the good work they've done in closing down the area just beyond the top of the box. Moffat scored the best goal of the playoffs from long range against KC, while Davis scored the first-ever goal at BBVA Compass Stadium against us from outside the area as well. Clark is also a threat to crush a ball, so clearances need to be high and wide and we need black shirts stepping out quickly if a Houston player is in space in that region of the field.
It wouldn't be Houston without the set piece issue. Simply put, they're the best in MLS at this side of the game. Davis provides top-notch service, and they take intense pride in winning their individual battles to put headers on goal. They also practice their movements; both their first goal and a later near miss against Chicago involved decoy runs and well-placed picks to free a skilled header of the ball. Bruin, Boswell, and Hainault are all among MLS's most dangerous on corner kicks, and Ching is not far behind. Bruising forward Cam Weaver is also a big factor here if he plays (he replaced Bruin in the latter stages of both legs against KC).
United simply can't match the Dynamo in terms of size; at some point, we're going to have Kitchen or Russell up against a guy like Bruin, which is a mismatch. Instead, we need to avoid giving up set pieces at all costs - even if that means simply thumping the ball out of bounds - and be prepared for a war in the box. Protecting the area in line with the near post and just beyond the 6 yard box is of particular importance, as that's the sweet spot for Davis. United is going to have to get a little dirty here and not let Houston's runners get to that spot, even if it means getting barreled into.
Going forward, the mantra should be simple: Attack the fullbacks! Sarkodie is the worst starter for the Dynamo. He'll grow into a good player, but he's not there now. His positioning is suspect, his focus can drop, and he often struggles to anticipate runs before it's too late. On the other side, Ashe is stronger but can sometimes be caught out due to being overeager to join the attack. Furthermore, Ashe can get caught up in trying to be a tough guy, and when he does that he tends to lose focus on the job at hand. He's tough to beat in terms of speed, though, so Nick DeLeon should look to play the ball quickly while Ashe is beaten rather than let him have the time to recover.
If we're successful at rounding the fullbacks, the object should be to cross low and hard rather than play aerial crosses. Houston's center backs would love to see a steady diet of headers to win, but they're susceptible when the ball is played on the ground. If Hainault plays, he's a master at blocking shots (just like Jakovic...maybe it's all that hockey up in Canada?). It won't come up often, but a quick fake shot may work well against Hainault, who seems to relish the chance to lunge in front of a shot. Faking him out will remove him as an obstacle, and in this game one United goal would go a long way.
I like to close by focusing on the mental angle, and against Houston that side of the game is huge. As I said earlier, this is not the mentally weak opponent that we overcame in the first round. The Dynamo play as a cohesive unit, and they take pride in working for one another. United will need to match that strong mentality and be very disciplined - in all senses of the word - to avoid defeat in what has been an unpleasant place for us to play.
There's also the issue of maintaining focus. Houston has a knack for wearing teams down, and then capitalizing in the late stages. Only San Jose - who frankly had a totally unique season in terms of late heroics - scored more goals after the 75th minute. Their eventual series-winning goal against KC? A 75th minute goal at BBVA by Will Bruin.
Houston's secret isn't really a secret at all: They just wear teams down. Their direct style of play means they force defenders to do a lot of actual defending rather than having to stay patient and wait for the attack to reveal itself. If you play the Dynamo, you have to win more headers, block more shots, intercept more passes, etc, than you do normally. Eventually the quantity of attacks turns into a legitimate good opportunity, and generally the odds of that happening increase as teams get tired.
Speaking of tired, that might be United's trump card. We may be worried about fixture congestion, but it's the Dynamo that will be on tired legs. The Dynamo will be on a week's rest at RFK, but at the end of this game, they'll be dragging. If United can get through the first hour of this game tied (or even just within one goal), we could be in a great position to snatch a goal and leave the Dynamo reeling.