Dominic Kinnear's work as head coach has ensured that the Houston Dynamo are always a tough, competitive opponent. D.C. United will have to take another step forward to take all three points Saturday night at RFK.
Things are going well for D.C. United these days. Six straight games without a loss, 4-1 thrashings of hated rivals, and multiple players in the running for post-season awards (Nick DeLeon for Rookie of the Year, Emiliano Dudar for Newcomer of the Year, and Chris Pontius for Comeback Player of the Year, unless that is given to David Beckham again for no good reason when there is an indisputably better choice whose continued career is in and of itself a miracle)
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, right: Ben Olsen has his side performing well enough that Designated Players Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic are on the outside looking in, along with future superstars like Bill Hamid and Andy Najar.
Things are also going well for Saturday's opponent, the Houston Dynamo. Despite having to open the season with a seven-game road trip, and despite missing their top player Brad Davis for 40% of their games thus far, the Dynamo are an entirely respectable 2W-2D-1L on the season, good enough for 5th place in the East (good enough for the last playoff spot, in other words).
Anyone who has been paying attention to the Dynamo will not find this particularly surprising. Dominic Kinnear's team may be a couple of years removed from their MLS Cup-winning, thrillers-with-Pachuca-in-the-CCL days, but they still have a very high floor. Aside from 2010 - a season we can all agree never occurred - Houston has been a playoff team every year since they moved to Texas. They are a model to follow for MLS clubs looking to be consistent winners.
In other words, this is going to be a tough game, just like every other time we've faced the Dynamo. This isn't the shambolic New York Red Bulls, or a game but ultimately limited team like the New England Revolution. Houston always matches teams in terms of competitive fire, and they are almost always solid defensively. Add in being arguably MLS's best team on set pieces - at the very least, they're MLS's biggest, strongest starting 11 - and you have a game that is always a difficult one.
It's a big test for United, because we've mostly been taking our points from lesser teams. A win over a stronger team like Houston would be a further step forward for the Black-and-Red.
For the first time since our early game against the LA Galaxy, predicting the opposing formation is a breeze. Houston playing a 442 is just like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west: It's just what happens.
The most vital question mark is at left midfield. Davis was listed as doubtful on Tuesday's injury report, but should be considered questionable right now. If he's fit to play even an hour, Kinnear will have to consider starting him given that he was an MVP candidate last season.
On the other hand, Kinnear may want to be cautious with Davis and ensure he has his star man fully fit for, among other things, the opening game at BBVA Compass Stadium (first-ever guest: United). Normally that would mean Corey Ashe playing on the left, but Ashe is also listed as doubtful with a hamstring strain at the moment. On top of that, Colin Clark (a natural left midfielder who usually plays on the right due to Davis being better) is still suspended for using an anti-gay slur.
If all of this holds up - be sure to check the official MLS injury report Friday evening or Saturday morning - then I would expect to see Davis only as a substitute. If that's how things go, Kinnear will be forced to play someone further down the depth chart. Macoumba Kandji is not a natural winger, but he has played left midfield enough times during his MLS career as to be the likely alternative. Calen Carr - another natural forward - is the other likely solution if Davis and Ashe are both unable to start. In both cases, that means a lot of speed but not a lot of positional sense in terms of defending.
The only other question mark is at left back, where Ashe normally starts. Former United trialist Jermaine Taylor has been Kinnear's preferred left back when Ashe is unavailable, and figures to start again. It's not his natural position - he's very much a center back - but he keeps things simple and focuses on the defensive side of the game almost exclusively. It's worth noting that Taylor started in last year's MLS Cup final in this very spot due to Ashe moving up to the midfield after Davis tore his quadriceps in the conference finals.
The first thing about beating the Dynamo is that you have to be strong on set pieces. United simply cannot afford to give up any cheap free kicks, because they are a fundamental part of Houston's success. Even without Davis providing his typically deadly service, Houston has too many powerful, aggressive players looking to win headers or pounce on loose balls. That projected back four? All over 6' tall, all very strong, all aggressive. Brian Ching and Will Bruin are both physical forwards who are just as big a threat as the defenders. Adam Moffat hooks in a decent ball, and "decent" is all it really takes when you have the sheer volume of good targets the Dynamo can call on.
Fortunately, if there is one thing the Houston team lacks, it's tricky dribblers. The kinds of players that you tend to have to foul in dangerous spots aren't really found in Houston's orange jerseys. Kandji or Carr may provide this kind of threat, though both have issues (Kandji tends to disappear from games, while Carr is less of a dribbler and more of a "let's have a race to the loose ball" type of player).
Regardless, United can't afford to be lazy in defending. We need to work as a group to force players into turnovers rather than being reckless, and we need to be intelligent rather than rash in our tackling. Houston is not so skillful in possession that we will eventually be picked apart, a la the Galaxy. Being smart enough to frustrate their more direct approach will be a key to shutting down both the free kick threat and slowing down the Dynamo attack in the run of play.
Similarly, we'll need a big game from our midfield in terms of winning loose balls. With Ching and Bruin, the Dynamo have the option of playing long balls in the air, but it requires winning the knockdowns that come from that. If United can be the team picking up those balls rather than Houston, we should be able to control the ball and spend more time putting the Dynamo on their heels rather than the opposite situation.
Going forward, we should be able to cause Houston some problems given our style of play. While much has been made of the low number of crosses we send in, against the big Dynamo back four crossing is probably not a good idea anyway. Instead, United should be looking to play quick combinations - Taylor and Bobby Boswell are not fast players - beating people on the dribble, and generally looking to keep the ball on the ground and moving at a high rate. You don't beat Houston by hoofing the ball into the box; you beat them by thinking and moving at a faster rate.
That means that Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz - who will surely be up for this game - need to have strong outings. In DeLeon's case, that means drawing Andre Hainault out of position and working passes with others to get around him. Hainault can lack positional discipline, but his agility and overall athleticism make him tough to just dribble around.
On the other side, Cruz should go at Taylor relentlessly; the big Jamaican is not as quick-footed as Hainault, and we could see plenty of success down that side if we can keep attacking Taylor on the ground. If/when Cruz (or Chris Pontius, if he drifts wide for a play) gets around Taylor, he should look to keep his cross low and make it about who can get there the fastest, rather than putting up an aerial cross for guys like Boswell and Geoff Cameron to eat up.
In the midfield, United will have some success if we keep the ball moving quickly. Likely right midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson doesn't contribute much defensively, and we might be able to find Dwayne De Rosario in space between the lines if Moffat and Luiz Camargo play flatter, as is their tendency. A high-paced passing game is easier to talk about than to implement, but if we can pull it off, we should be able to play around the combative Houston central midfield, setting the table for us to get at their back four.
Ultimately, this game is going to be a tight one. Houston is routinely among MLS's hardest working, most competitive teams, and they're pretty good at not being forced to play another team's game. Their identity as a tough, direct team that defends as a unit has been earned over years, and it's a rare sight to see them turn in an effort worse than "competent."
As fun as it was beating up on NYRB, this game is more likely to resemble our 0-0 home draw with the Seattle Sounders. Between Houston's makeshift midfield and their focus on grinding out road points, it seems likely that neither team will concede many chances. That means the finishing of both teams will be huge (remember that against Seattle, both teams put one golden chance off the crossbar). United has the capability of creating more chances than Houston, but it will take another step forward from our attack while maintaining the defensive solidity that we've seen since Dudar became a starter.