Three things in life are certain: Death, taxes, and the Houston Dynamo. For D.C. United, at least, the Dynamo may be the scariest thing on that list. Since moving from San Jose - RIP Quakes 1.0 and your correct use of blue instead of black as your home color - Houston has been nothing but trouble for United. The overall record for the Black-and-Red against the Orange-and-White looks bad: 4W-3D-11L, with a -16 goal difference (that'll happen when a team scores 33 goals in 18 games against you).
However, that is padded by games back in the mid-oughts. Since July 22, 2008 - the night a rescheduled United-Dynamo match at RFK was postponed for the second time thanks to a massive power outage in the District - United is 2W-3D-9L with a goal difference of -17, including two 4-0 losses in Texas. While our home record is somewhat comforting (4W-2D-2L, +1), it's still worth pointing out that our 3-2 win in late April last year was our first in three years against Houston.
Throw in the contrast between the Dynamo's strong start to 2013 and our dreadful form, and this starts to look like a nightmare of a fixture to have after ten days off. Teams in our situation don't want to see a bogey team, and certainly not when said team is coming off a road win against the defending champs. You might look at the MLS standings and ask why we can't be playing victory-averse Toronto FC or the walking triage unit that is the Colorado Rapids right now. We're like an injured player right now, and the preferred rehab assignment is subbing into a reserve match, not having to go 90 minutes in a cup final.
Before we whine any more, though, it's time to think about Houston's win over LA. In particular, it's worth noting because of when it happened: In real people time (also known as Eastern Standard), the Dynamo won that game at 1am on Monday. Tomorrow's game is just 66 hours later, and in between the two Houston had to fly cross-country. The MLS schedule maker may have handed us an unfavorable opponent, but they sure did soften then up first by sending them to LA.
There's playing on short rest, and then there's this. Scheduling Houston for two games in less than three full days on opposite coasts is the most cruel pairing of fixtures I can remember an MLS team having to endure since...oh, I don't know...last year's playoffs. You might remember it: Thanks to NYRB's decision to uncover their field and let it get covered with snow for hours before trying to do anything about it, United ended up having 66.5 hours between playoff games. Karma's a bitch, Dynamo.
This is no small problem. A wide-ranging study by respected Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen released last year showed that teams with only two days off between game days, when faced with a team having three or more days off, were 42% less likely to win on the road. It's a combination of factors: Rotate your team, and you're trying to win with your reserves. Send out the same guys that played the last game, and you simply won't have the legs to compete (not to mention the heightened risk for injury).
Dominic Kinnear faces some huge challenges this week in assembling a starting lineup, particularly after making just one sub in LA (and that didn't happen until the 84th minute, with Giles Barnes coming off for Brian Ching). Other than Brad Davis - suspended for the game against the Galaxy - every other first-choice Dynamo player played either a complete game or close enough that it makes no difference.
As such, Houston's team is very difficult to predict:
This mostly depends on who recovers well, who had injuries that haven't been reported, and other factors. There's so many variables that I almost want to just post a large question mark instead of a formation.
Davis, Tally Hall, and Bobby Boswell are the three starters you can count on seeing. After that, it's chaos. At right back, Kofi Sarkodie received lengthy treatment after getting kicked during the LA game but played without a limp for the remainder of the match. I'd actually expect him to be rested, but Kinnear's best alternative - Warren Creavalle - will likely play elsewhere if he can (he was listed as "Out" with a hamstring strain on 4/26, the last time Houston updated their injury report).
In the middle, Jermaine Taylor should start, but could end up at left back so that Corey Ashe can get a rest. If that's the case, look for Eric Brunner to step in centrally. Former United defender Mike Chabala is also a possibility at left back if Kinnear doesn't want to break up his preferred center back partnership.
In the midfield, the normal starters would be Moffat in an anchor role behind Oscar Boniek Garcia on the right, Ricardo Clark in the middle, and Davis on the left. Moffat only just returned from a hamstring injury and went 90 in LA, and normally I'd say that makes him a prime candidate for a rest. However, Clark covered a staggering amount of ground at whatever they're calling LA's stadium these days, so he is just as strong a candidate for a rest.
Luiz Camargo will take one of these two roles, but which one is down to the recoveries of Moffat and Clark, as well as factors like Kinnear possibly using Davis in the middle, or youngster Alex Dixon (fresh off a short loan to the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL). Creavalle could also play in either central role, while Garcia could slot into an attacking role. Andrew Driver, fresh off scoring the winner in LA, could also end up on either wing if Davis or Garcia is pulled into the middle.
Up top, United killer Will Bruin went 90 and had to work hard in doing so, as the Dynamo attack mostly consisted of hopeful early balls (which in turn meant plenty of thankless running for Bruin). Given his past issues with hamstring strains, it seems like a distinct possibility that Kinnear will opt to rest him and/or Barnes with Ching and Cam Weaver, giving the Dynamo a dual target man front line rather than Barnes playing with some freedom as a withdrawn forward. First round pick Jason Johnson hasn't seen much time due to Houston's depth, but he could be a speedy Ace up Kinnear's sleeve.
Kinnear could also alter his tactics. He's played with a 4411 this season as well as switching to a 4141 in games when needed. There is also the 433, which worked wonders against us in the playoffs. If he goes with that, look for Camargo to play as a bottom point while Garcia or Creavalle plays the right-center role and Davis stations himself as the left-center midfielder. They'll run into issues up top due to Omar Cummings suffering an injury setback in his recovery from knee surgery, but perhaps Johnson is the solution? Kinnear will likely get creative here, because just sending his best eleven out again will likely get someone injured on top of leaving the Dynamo without the energy to even compete.
Obviously there are a lot of variables here, but we can rely on Kinnear to have his team approach the game the same way they always do. The Dynamo are a direct, attack-minded team that thrive on getting the fundamentals right. If you want to beat Houston, you have to match or top them in terms of doing the simple stuff correctly every time. You can't misplace passes, you can't play too slowly, and you can't go to sleep. The Galaxy can tell you about that last one, as the Dynamo goal on Sunday came after borderline aimless Boswell long ball was chased down by Barnes, who hit a blind pass across the top of the box. Driver arrived while Sean Franklin and others ball-watched, and duly converted.
The Dynamo can be underrated in possession, and are very comfortable holding onto the ball for long stretches. The reason they don't get more credit for it is what their goal is. Unlike possession teams like Real Salt Lake, who are trying to use possession to compliment the technical ability they have throughout their team, Houston is generally keeping the ball because they know they won't give up a goal while doing so. It's less about an ideal and more about pragmatism for the Dynamo, who will play possession soccer if you give them the chance just as easily as they'll play long balls if that's what you're giving up.
A big weapon for Houston is their play on set pieces, especially with Davis returning. In particular, the top of the six yard box at the near post on all corner kicks is an area United must do well at defending. Davis loves to drive his corners in for runners in that spot, and with the pace he puts on the ball a simple glancing header is all it often takes to score.
Houston has plenty of runs and picks to open up that area for guys like Boswell and Bruin, so United must be far more alert and far stronger in staying marked up in these situations. It would help if United took a page out of the Dynamo's book. Houston takes the challenge of going 1v1 against an opponent in a physical battle personally, and every Dynamo player is intense about getting the better of their marker. That's what we need to see from Los Capitalinos on set pieces: Players need to take it personally that Boswell, Bruin, Taylor, or whoever thinks they're going to come in and beat them.
Defensively, United needs to be alert to the early long ball over the top. Houston's forwards are usually good at making these runs while the back four is facing upfield, giving them a head start as the defenders turn to chase. Boswell in particular has become good at serving this sort of ball upfield, so it would be helpful for our forwards to prevent him from having the time to spot a Dynamo runner.
Going forward, playing on the ground and in behind the center backs could work quite well, particularly if Taylor is rested or ends up on the flanks. Boswell (and Brunner) are much better in the air than at winning footraces, and the aggressive posture Kinnear wants out of his fullbacks means they can be caught further upfield at the same time.
Attacking the wings could also be fruitful for United, especially given the presence of Moffat or Camargo in that anchor role. Those two aren't that mobile, so if we see a quick DC counter down the wing, the defensive midfielder isn't going to arrive quickly to help the outside back out. In particular, this is promising down the right-hand side thanks to Boswell also lacking quickness. Furthermore, Sarkodie's 1v1 defending is nothing special, while Ashe's apparent Napoleon complex means he can caught up in being a tough guy.
When that happens, he starts giving away fouls regularly. Despite the Dynamo's sterling reputation on attacking set pieces, they've actually been pretty soft defending them in 2013 (per ESPN's broadcast they're at 3 goals conceded in 9 games, after giving up only 5 in 34 last year). We don't have the too-small United team of the past, with guys like Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, Perry Kitchen - provided he doesn't have a goal chalked off for no good reason - and our cadre of physically strong strikers all available for set pieces.
As the quality of delivery is unquestionably worse without Branko Boskovic, I'd like to see United show a little trickery here. We have a group of targets that are at least average for MLS, and it's about time we found a way to use them. Some misdirection or surprises - and not just Lionard Pajoy somehow being the guy who ends up with our best shot direct from a free kick in ages when he hit the bar against Columbus - could go a long way here, while the standard "kick ball at box, hope for best" approach probably won't.
Before I finish up, I want to touch on the word of the week: Patience. LA dominated Houston for the first 35 minutes (even after Landon Donovan's missed PK), but eventually became frustrated that playing well didn't automatically turn into a lead. The Galaxy eventually just shut off as a team out of frustration, and that's when Houston came into the game.
United must not repeat this mistake. The Dynamo will give us their best in the first half, even if they are too tired to do much more beyond focusing on defending. We can't let that cause heads to drop, because that's when players start making lazy or wasteful decisions with the ball. Recall our trip to Houston in the playoffs, where we played quite well in the first half before we simply ran out of gas. That's when Houston upped the tempo and eventually gave themselves a decisive 3-1 lead.
DCU should remember that lesson well. The vital thing here isn't to score in the first 30 minutes; it's to stay calm and remember that this game will be there to win after the hour mark. Rather than charging out of the gate and engaging the less rusty Dynamo in a track meet early - which would be risking falling behind - United should focus on possession and getting Houston to do some extra running. We should look to sap their energy and let the ball do the work early, and then play at a higher speed in the second half. There's no reason to be upset at a 0-0 halftime score in this game, provided United is knocking the ball around well (or at least adequately). A patient approach should pay off in the late stages.
Normally, our form and the Dynamo's quality would make this an easy game to call. Even in the parity of MLS, and even with their 9W-18D-26L road record since 2010 (thanks again, hard-working ESPN intern!), Houston would enter this game as heavy favorites. However, the circumstances are heavily stacked against them given their lack of rest. The Dynamo have some great depth - take a look at their CCL group stage lineups - but they won't be able to hide every player that went 90 in LA, and those reserves will be pretty rusty to boot.
This all adds up as an opportunity, rather than a burden. A positive approach from United - in both soccer and general psychological terms - could actually add up to a win for a DC team that desperately needs one. Provided United can avoid the awful defending we've seen in the first half of recent games, we should have a platform from which to win this game once the Dynamo find themselves sitting on E with 30+ minutes to play.