Every team in the world has an away game on their schedule that never seems to go well. Sometimes they just get outplayed, sometimes they fall victim to the one special moment in an otherwise even game, and sometimes the ref just screws them. It's always something.
For D.C. United, that away game has been "at Houston Dynamo" since Texas gained a second MLS club back in 2006. There's not much more beyond noting United's record in Space City: 0W-1D-9L all time. On three visits last season, Nick DeLeon's playoff goal was the only time we put a one up on the scoreboard. Since a 4-3 loss at Robertson Stadium back in 2009, DeLeon has fully half of United's total goals scored in Houston (trivia: Who has the other? Answer at the end of the post).
Still, if the Black-and-Red are ever going to win in Houston, this might be the time to do it. Dominic Kinnear's side generally starts off slowly, and for once the gameday forecast - breezy and possibly below 50 degrees at kickoff - does not involve being cooked alive in Houston's infamous heat and humidity.
The Dynamo also have a significant game to worry about Tuesday night, when they'll be hosting Santos Laguna in a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. Houston has always prioritized MLS play over the CCL, but Kinnear did go all-out trying to beat Pachuca (2007 and 2009) as well as Pumas UNAM (2008 group stage). Houston is well aware that they'll have all season to make up for a bad season opener, but a poor performance mid-week will essentially kill their hopes given MLS's record on Mexican soil.
While Kinnear has several formations that he can choose from, I would be surprised to see him choose anything other than the 4132 the Dynamo used for almost all of the last half of 2012:
Houston had plenty of success playing a 433 against us last season, but in those games they had Macoumba Kandji lined up against Robbie Russell. Kandji is playing in Greece now, and Russell is no better than third on the depth chart at right back these days. With Chris Korb and James Riley available and significantly faster than Russell, the simple gameplan of Kandji chasing down long balls is off the table.
There are plenty of question marks, though, because of Houston's CCL match on Tuesday. We shouldn't expect to see reserves, or even a half-starter/half-reserve sort of team. As Stephen Eastepp from Dynamo Theory pointed out on this week's episode of Filibuster, we should expect to see no more than one or two second-choice Dynamo players start against United. Houston's emphasis has consistently been on MLS rather than the CCL, and this is an Eastern Conference game against a fellow playoff team. We're not going to catch a huge break here.
The question marks this week are more about which players could possibly not start against DC. Kofi Sarkodie looked surprisingly solid in the playoffs and is the first choice right back, but Warren Creavalle is a very good depth player and Kinnear wouldn't lose much by playing him in this match. On the other side, Corey Ashe barely played in the preseason coming off knee surgery. He's said to be ready to play, but two games in short order may be too much. If Kinnear opts to rest him for the Santos match, look for Eric Brunner to come in at center back and Jermaine Taylor to move out to the left.
The questions continue further forward. Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark are the preferred central midfield pairing for right now, but Giles Barnes is pushing hard for a starting role. Given that Santos is in midseason form, it wouldn't be too crazy to see Kinnear play Barnes and risk a more open game against United. If he starts, look for Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis to play further back and slightly more central in order to help cover defensively. Luiz Camargo could also step in for either Moffat or Clark; in fact, a Barnes-Camargo central midfield certainly is a possibility for the Black-and-Red to consider. It's also worth mentioning that Clark has had a bit of knee swelling in the preseason, increasing the chances that he won't start both games.
Up front, the question over who will partner Will Bruin is mostly down to injuries. Calen Carr is a long way off from playing after tearing his ACL in MLS Cup, and Omar Cummings is not even training at 100% yet after offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. Brian Ching - whose contract was hours away from ending before he signed a deal to become a player-coach - seems like a healthy bet to start against United, even if at his age that means he won't be able to play much at all against Santos. The other candidates are VCU product Jason Johnson and veteran Cam Weaver. Johnson probably hasn't earned Kinnear's trust as a starter yet, while Weaver is too similar to Bruin to play both at once.
If I had to bet on any of these changes, I'd say Barnes is the most likely starter, followed by Brunner (with Ashe resting) and then Camargo. If Barnes is starting, Houston is going to be very attack-minded by necessity; you don't grind games out playing him in a central role. If Camargo comes in, his position will be determined by his central partner. If it's Clark or Barnes, he'll play the deep role; with Moffat, he'd likely play where Clark is listed in the above diagram.
No matter what group the Dynamo send out, the primary threat is going to be down the wings. Garcia is an electrifying presence on the right side, offering speed and dribbling skills that few in the league can match. Like our own Chris Pontius, Garcia isn't big on toying with opposing defenders; he prefers to burst past fullbacks the moment they're leaning the wrong way. After that, he'll more likely look to combine around the box. OBG doesn't score too many goals by dialing up his own number, but he's a huge threat to start and finish quick passing moves that result in point-blank opportunities.
For Daniel Woolard to have success, he's going to have to deny Garcia the opportunity to cut into the middle when on the ball. Forcing Garcia to play a bland, traditional wide role - i.e. staying on the touchline and trying to cross - takes away what he's best at. He's still a respectable crosser, but you have to pick your poison against a player like Boniek.
On the other side is Brad Davis, who can now safely be called the best crosser in MLS now that David Beckham has gone to scissor-tackle the poor saps in Ligue 1. For an MLS winger, Davis is below average in terms of speed, yet uses his tremendous soccer IQ to constantly find enough space to deliver his pinpoint deliveries from the left side. He's also a substantial threat to shoot from outside the box, in case you forgot how he scored the first-ever goal at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Korb (or James Riley) will need to be very busy and very alert to where Davis is going. Both United right backs have the athletic advantage over Davis, and if they deny him space it'll be some other, less dangerous Dynamo player trying to deliver the killer ball. However, Davis seems to always work his way into space, and if it's not working out wide he can always come inside and act as more of a playmaker. In those spots, communication - both from Korb/Riley and amongst the center backs and midfielders - will be vital to make sure he has no room.
There's also Will Bruin, who has seemingly scored all of his MLS goals against United somehow. Bruin isn't some mystical genius who conjures up magic to score. He works hard, he's physically strong, and he has a well-honed instinct of when to cut his run off (which sees his marker take a few extra strides, leaving plenty of space to shoot). Dealing with a player like Bruin is less about being utterly brilliant and more about simply staying focused and avoiding mistakes. Consistently good defending, rather than eye-catching big plays, is the recipe for shutting down the Dancing Bear.
Going forward, United will need to move the ball quickly through central midfield, particularly if Clark gets the start. The former USMNT defensive midfielder has more leeway in this forward destroyer role to rove around making tackles and using his stellar athleticism to close passing lanes that appear to be open. WIth Moffat (or Camargo) in the anchor role, there will be a near-constant shield in front of the Dynamo back four.
The good news for our boys in black is that the Dynamo's weakest players are their fullbacks, which matches up nicely with our outstanding wingers. We saw last season that, while Sarkodie is a player on the up in terms of his career, he's still someone Olsen likes to pick on. When Pontius pulled his groin early in the first leg of the Conference final, we saw Lewis Neal sub on and play right midfield, with Nick DeLeon moving to the left to put our most dangerous winger up against him. It worked, too, as DeLeon scored the game's only goal coming in from the right.
Pontius will be a big player for us in this match, as his ability to come inside on the run will put Bobby Boswell in trouble. Boswell is a good defender and is smart enough to know that he's screwed if Pontius is coming at him with pace, but preventing that window from opening up is down to Sarkodie, Garcia, and Moffat. Of course, the looming mystery of Dwayne De Rosario's suspension (no announcement as of this writing) could throw a wrench in that plan. If Pontius is used centrally a la last year's grind-it-out 4231, we might see Kyle Porter get an instant start for the exact same reason Pontius would do well given this match-up.
Left back is also not exactly iron-clad for Houston. Corey Ashe is very fast and brings a battling mindset to the job, but his positioning can be shaky and he tends to commit some fouls due to a lack of patience. If DeLeon can lure him in on the dribble, we will get free kick opportunities. DeLeon should also try to touch the ball past Ashe if Ashe starts to dive in for a tackle, because Amish Sisqo would be looking at a wide-open flank to run down if the tackle misses.
Speaking of free kicks, Houston is as good as anyone in MLS at converting them into goals. Davis can put the ball wherever he wants it, and at the right pace to boot. Houston has size all over the field, and every one of their players takes real pride in beating people in the 1v1 battles that arise in the box on set pieces. United should be particularly aware of driven corners aimed at the near post; the Dynamo have several rehearsed plays based on getting a runner free at the top of the six to glance in a driven ball from Davis. Hainault's departure to
jail, where he deserves to be forever Scotland does leave the Dynamo lacking one of their best targets, but Boswell, Bruin, Ching, and Taylor are all still very dangerous.
While the Dynamo are among the best teams in the East, United can still approach this game with reason to be confident. Let's not forget that a) we're also one of the best teams in the East, and b) Houston was bailed out by incompetent refereeing, avoiding going down a man while already behind 1-0 just before halftime thanks to this incident that I will never, ever forget or forgive.
This has been a tough fixture for United, obviously, but the playoff game last season showed that it's not impossible. Simple things like keeping the ball moving, staying focused, and getting the fundamentals right go a long way in Houston (a team that rarely lets a mistake by the opposition go unpunished). If DC can keep Garcia wide and deny space for Davis, the service for Bruin's typical United-killing will dry up. At the other end, I like our match-ups down both flanks and the possibility of our left wing options cutting inside to run at Boswell
If we're ready to play a sound, intelligent game, we can finally get a long overdue victory over the Dynamo. In the process, we'd be throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the Eastern Conference. If you want to be king of the mountain, you have to knock the old king off the top of the hill first.
Trivia answer: Marc Burch. If you got the answer right, buy yourself a beer on March 9th. If not, console yourself with a beer on March 9th.