Ahead of last week's game, I opened by noting how finding a national-level MLS observer to take D.C. United over both the New York Red Bulls (guess history isn't popular these days?) and the Houston Dynamo was virtually impossible. That was before United saw a 1-0 lead turn into a 3-1 loss; before Chris Pontius, Marcelo Saragosa, and Brandon McDonald all had to be substituted with injuries; and before Ricardo Salazar further reduced the number of teams that MLS can reasonably have him officiate without causing acrimony.
So yeah, the expectations haven't exactly improved for the Black-and-Red. Ask around, and that Mount Everest + Olympus Mons + angry bears at the top I was talking about in terms of our hopes now features bears that have learned the concept of teamwork and have also been given swords. Oh, and we have to scale the mountain three-legged race style. And our partner in that race is wasted and sticking with a bad metaphor because it amuses him.
Still, the two-goal deficit United must at least match over 90 minutes to stay alive is not insurmountable. Teams like Colorado, Philadelphia, and Chicago have all managed two-goal wins over the Dynamo since the start of August. In that same time period, we've seen Ben Olsen's squad score two or more goals at home four times, including three on Columbus (in what amounted to a playoff game for the Crew) and four on Chicago. This isn't like needing to shut out the San Jose Earthquakes (super difficult), or finding an MLS referee who won't make a major mistake (impossible).
In other words, United has a tough job on their hands, but not a job that simply can't be done. The Dynamo are also dealing with injuries; starting forward/winger Calen Carr is doubtful, while defensive midfielders Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark are both listed as questionable. Moffat was cleared to train after suffering a concussion, while Clark was also allowed to test an abdominal strain that he's been showing signs of for weeks.
The injury to Carr will likely force moves elsewhere. Dominic Kinnear will probably want to stick with the 433, but in my view is likely to tweak it into more of a 4141 look when the Dynamo is without the ball. Houston is not going to sit in a complete bunker as they did at Kansas City (a look that was not their preference, but rather was forced on them by a combination of KC's pressure and poor use of the ball), but a true 433 with two attacking midfielders playing ahead of a defensive midfielder that is often the more attack-minded of a duo is probably not going to be repeated on the road with a two-goal edge.
What's up with the jersey change again? They look almost like Dynamo away jerseys, but really I'm just superstitious.
There are a couple different possibilities involved in predicting exactly how Houston will line up to start this one. Jermaine Taylor was probable last week, and has now had a week to rest his tweaked knee. He was the starter over Andre Hainault for quite a while before he picked up his injury in the Dynamo's first leg win over KC.
Kinnear has an interesting call to make there: Hainault is the faster of the two, and has a great knack for acrobatic blocks and saving tackles (both of which the Dynamo will likely need in this game). Taylor, on the other hand, is more positionally sound and is a bit better at preventative defending rather than reactive defending. It's also not like Taylor is slow or clumsy; he picked up that knee injury blocking a shot at full stretch. If he were an oaf, he wouldn't have even come close to the ball.
The real uncertainty is further forward. Brad Davis and Macoumba Kandji are sure bets, and Oscar Boniek Garcia will be somewhere, but the rest is up for grabs. If Moffat is fit - and it sounds like he'll play barring any setbacks - he'll take the deep role in the midfield. The other central role would then be down to Clark and Luiz Camargo, with Clark the better fit but also saddled with an abdominal injury that will really have an impact on his rangy, exuberant style. Camargo is the better passer, which would help the Dynamo if they want to take the air out of the game, but I feel like Kinnear will go with Clark if at all possible.
It's possible, however, that both Clark and Moffat are both unavailable as starters. In that case, Camargo would play defensive midfield again, and Garcia would probably have to shift inside. Right midfield would then probably go to Giles Barnes, who caused United problems in the first leg with his ability to draw a defender in before dishing the ball off. The use of Barnes in that spot was something of a surprise, as most of his minutes with the Dynamo to this point have been at the point of a diamond (particularly with the B team Kinnear sent out in the CONCACAF Champions League). I would imagine United will be better prepared for him this time around.
Defensively, the big problem United had in the last game was dealing with long balls aimed at the wings. In fact, Will Bruin's goal ended up providing a great way to explain the two issues United failed to deal with. First, on the long ball aimed at Kandji, Russell was caught unprepared. The ball was well-aimed, and the extra moment it took Russell to see the ball coming meant he had no chance at obstructing Kandji's run or turning to pursue him.
Dejan Jakovic saw this and did what he was supposed to do: Come out of his center back spot to challenge Kandji. Jakovic ended up getting beaten on the play, but the bigger issue for me was that Russell compounded his first mistake by not immediately running into the center back slot Jakovic had vacated. In fact, Russell never made the move at all, and ended up defending space no one was interested in.
This simply won't do. Houston is going to bombard both fullbacks with this kind of ball, and eventually some of them are going to be placed well enough that a United center back is going to have to pull wide to prevent a free run into the box. On these situations, the fullback must go inside to both support the center back in case he gets beat and to potentially block any cross attempt that results. The only way you'd get a pass in that situation is if a defensive midfielder is calling you off, in which case you try to double-team the attacker. More responses like Russell's will probably mean we need to find three or more goals just to force overtime.
A quick look at the chalkboard of the first leg illustrates where these balls come from. Attacking down the left through Kandji mostly meant a ball up the wing from left back Corey Ashe, with a couple from Hainault thrown in. On the right, however, the balls tend to come from Bobby Boswell; right back Kofi Sarkodie tended to play to feet instead.
Kandji's speed is the major mismatch here, so United will have to apply better pressure from right midfield. Intriguingly, the attacking threat Nick DeLeon provided from our left side also positioned him to better pressure Sarkodie, while Lewis Neal's more conservative positioning allowed Ashe the extra space to size his passes up. Cutting off the supply to Kandji is the only real way we can deal with the fact that Kandji is flat-out faster than Russell other than benching Russell, moving Chris Korb to right back, and bringing Daniel Woolard back into the fold. That comes with even more risk, so obviously we need to prevent this avenue of attack from being so accessible instead.
United mostly did well against Houston's traditional set pieces, but fell prey to two avoidable mistakes and conceded two goals as a result. Hainault's equalizer came from simply not being plugged in. Davis saw that United was not ready and took his free kick quickly, and from there on we were essentially at the mercy of the Dynamo. This was the second time a quick Dynamo free kick turned into a big chance for Houston; the first one, in the 23rd minute, was headed just wide by Hainault.
The solution? Regular readers will already know what's coming: Focus. With United having to push so hard to get the goals we need to go through, defensive focus will be even more important because we're likely to have to defend with fewer numbers than we have been in recent weeks.
The second set piece goal came after a) United let a corner kick bounce in the box, b) Raphael Augusto attempted a difficult right-footed clearance instead of either a quick trap and clear or using his left to simply guide the ball out of bounds, and c) Augusto compounded his error by trying to double the ball instead of sticking with Sarkodie. Sarkodie was playing a 1-2 with Camargo, but the return pass would not have been on if Augusto simply stayed with Sarkodie as he should of. Hindsight being 20/20, this - rather than the poor clearance attempt - is the real error. Following a half-clearance or anything like Augusto's bad touch, United has to be very sharp in both defending as a team and taking care of individual marking.
Going forward, there is reason for optimism. United were clearly the better team over the first half hour, and lost in all the post-game talk was the fact that along with the goal and the red-card-that-wasn't, we saw Branko Boskovic just miss on an audacious volley at the back post in the 36th minute from a Perry Kitchen cross, and also had a sure goal headed off the line by Bobby Boswell in the 65th minute. Even after the Dynamo went to the 433, we had real chances.
That second chance, which came following a lovely sequence of possession that concluded with Russell rounding Ashe, was not the only time we saw Russell move into the attack and create a chance. We can't ask him to bomb forward like Andy Najar, but when we keep possession, we will eventually get chances to involve our outside backs for this kind of play. Russell may be a source of worry against Kandji, but it also should be noted that Kandji doesn't really defend, and Russell has a significant advantage when it comes to soccer IQ over Ashe.
The key to opening that up, as well as everything else for us, is going to be possession. With Dwayne De Rosario's status a mystery and Chris Pontius sounding more doubtful than questionable, United doesn't really have the potential to score many goals where one player does something spectacular. The highlight reel pass, the classic golazo, and the Pontius special are probably not on the menu.
Our goals are going to have to be team goals, where the key pass(es) and the finish end up being not too complicated. Pulling Houston out of position will require patience with the ball as well as movement and good control. When we've been able to move the ball quickly and have multiple players moving in concert, we have consistently opened teams up in these playoffs. Our attacks should not be attempts at going 2v4 or hard-charging counters; rather, we need to get multiple players involved and use the quality of movement we get from DeLeon, Lionard Pajoy, and Lewis Neal to eventually create the opening.
The psychological angle here is simply stated but hard to enact: United must strike a balance between patience (we can't win the game in the first 15 minutes) and urgency (wait too long to start your push, and you end up needing a miracle). The veterans are going to need to provide a lot of leadership early in this game, when I suspect we'll see a Houston side that is actually willing to engage us in some back-and-forth play rather than being cautious. The Dynamo can afford to risk giving up the first goal; the consequences aren't that grave for them compared to the reward of scoring first themselves and essentially putting the tie away then and there.
What we need to see is United taking this game in pieces rather than as one solid unit. The goal should be to score the opener before halftime. That's not much different from any other game we've played this year, and the idea is to keep things manageable. If we get that lead, the next step is simple: Start again as if it's 0-0.
Turning over a team like Houston with this kind of edge is not something you pursue. Instead, what you go after is getting the lead. Then, you try to score again. If you get to that two-goal edge, then you start thinking about going on to win the overall tie. It's important to keep looking at this as "we need the next goal" for as long as possible. If it gets late enough and we still need two goals, then it will be time for desperation. Until that comes, though, we just need to play our game and focus on the very do-able task of scoring the next goal.
Finally, there's the period of desperation this game is likely to see one way or the other. That's where Bill Hamid is going to have to come in. If United is desperate, Hamid is probably going to see some even-number rushes where a big save is probably our only way out. If it's the Dynamo that are desperate to score to stay alive, you can bet that there will be some crazy scrambles in the box as Houston sends bigger targets forward and begins bombarding our box. In either case, we're probably going to need Hamid to make at least one (and probably two or three) top-drawer saves.