The MLS schedule makers opted to give this year's United side quick access to the league's soft underbelly. If the playoffs started today, New York and Colorado would be the only playoff teams we've faced. Our opponents to this point have a combined record of 20 wins, 16 draws, and 27 losses. That averages out to 9.5 points in roughly 8 matches. This should serve to make our 1-7 mark all the more depressing. Unfortunately, that's only half of the bad news. The other half? Our schedule, starting now, gets tougher.
Our trips to Houston have never gone well. In four trips to Robertson Stadium, we have avoided defeat just once (a 0-0 draw in 2008). We've scored just 3 goals, all of which came in last year's 4-3 loss (a game we were losing 4-0 at one point). In 2006, we lost 1-0 on a Brian Ching bicycle kick that was later named the 2006 Goal of the Year. In 2007, it was a deflected shot that took us down. Robertson stands right with Mile High Stadium/DSG Park as our worst venue to visit.
Feeling optimistic yet? No? Well, I've saved what little good news there is for those that can bear to read on in the face of almost certain defeat.Let's start with those positive notes. Ageless goalkeeper Pat Onstad and normal first-choice right back Andrew Hainault are both with Canada for their friendly at Argentina (side note: aren't you glad US Soccer got us real opponents for our pre-WC matches?) and will be unavailable. Onstad will be replaced by Tally Hall, who (as is noted in that last link) has not played a single league match in his career. It's never happened in Houston, and it never happened at Esbjerg, the Danish club he signed with out of college. If you're a rabid CCL fan like me, you'll also remember Hall's goal at Isidro Metapan last year. It even came from the run of play! Take that, Danny Cepero!
This is certainly a development that should not be overlooked by United. Hall may have potential, but he's inexperienced and will likely have some nerves. Creating something early on would be highly recommended, though I find myself saying that every week. Hainault's absence will be less important, since veteran Craig Waibel has recently been good enough to earn a couple starts over Hainault on the right. Waibel's not the fastest player, but he's tough as nails, generally avoids being beaten, and has a great knack for getting free on set pieces.
With Brian Ching fighting for a spot on the World Cup squad and Cam Weaver still out injured, Houston's options up top have lately appeared thin. However, Luis Angel Landin has been removed from the injury report after struggling with a concussion, so Dominic Kinnear will have the option of choosing to pair him with speedster Dominic Oduro, or playing Oduro alone in the hybrid 4231/433 that had mixed results in the Dynamo's last 2 games (quality 2-0 win at Chivas USA, 3-1 loss at RSL in which Houston was thoroughly outplayed). A negative development from our point of view is that Joseph Ngwenya has officially returned, following a long spell in bureaucratic limbo caused by his former club not issuing an ITC. Ngwenya has been training with Houston for weeks now, so we will likely see him at some point Saturday night. Most signs point to Ngwenya being used as a sub, but in any case it's going to be very difficult for Juan Manuel Peña and Carey Talley to cope with 2 speedy forwards.
Going back to that 4231/433 formation for a second, I expect Kinnear to ditch it now that he has 3 fit and eligible strikers. Instead, expect to see the Dynamo in their usual 442:
There are a couple variables worth noting. I'm listing Ryan Cochrane as a starter even though Adrian Serioux has been the preferred partner for Bobby Boswell since Eddie Robinson's knee sprain. Why? Well, Serioux was at least 50% responsible for every goal RSL scored on Houston last week, and also gift-wrapped a chance for Alvaro Saborio to get a hat trick that the Costa Rican shot onto the post. It was a disastrous performance, and Kinnear usually makes a change after something like that.
Elsewhere, Kinnear could opt to play Richard Mulrooney alongside Lovel Palmer in central midfield, pushing Brad Davis to the left. However, given the fact that Clyde Simms is essentially doing the job in our engine room by himself, I see no reason for Kinnear to opt for a more defensive posture. As long as we're starting Morsink, teams have no reason to hold back in midfield. Thus, you can expect to see Davis pulling the strings and Corey Ashe running with speed at Jordan Graye.
I'd love to have a long list of weak points we can attack, but sadly I don't. Houston is, as always, a solid team that defends well as a group, fights hard, and has enough skill going forward to beat most teams. They've been bouncing back and forth between good and bad performances this season, and their last game was a bad one, so we don't even have something as trifling as a coincidental pattern in our favor. If there is one cause for hope, it's that Houston's back four has been a bit foul-happy all year. Waibel may have to foul if he gets beaten down the wing, Cochrane's positional sense lets him down sometimes and opens the door to tactical fouls, and Mike Chabala finds himself in trouble with the referee a bit more than your usual left back. If we get a referee that wants to be overly strict, it might give us some set piece opportunities (as well as see some Houston players in potential red card danger).
Our other hope is that the Dynamo back four, regardless of whether Serioux or Cochrane starts, is pretty slow. Chabala aside, it's a group that wins tons of headers but can struggle up against quick players. Obviously we don't have many guys that fit this category, and even the best example in our current starting lineup (Boyzzz Khumalo) is not someone we can really rely on to take a game by the scruff of the neck. That said, I think Danny Allsopp might have the slightest speed advantage down the middle. If Simms can get the time and space, he just might be able to play a few through balls into space and force Boswell and whoever partners him to defend facing their own goal. There's also been a lot of talk of Chris Pontius being able to make the gameday squad. If that's the case, we might be able to bring Party Boy in for the last 20-30 minutes. If we can keep the game close to that point, perhaps we can use Pontius as our ace in the hole to steal an unlikely result.
Defensively, our main worry will be Oduro's speed. Oduro's decision-making has often let him down, but he's slowly getting smarter in Houston. His runs off the ball are a bit more dangerous, and he's relying less on speed alone to create danger. Given our slow defensive unit, we almost have to play a deeper line to make it hard for the Dynamo to play Oduro in over the top or with long through-balls. However, that deeper line will give more space to Davis and the Houston midfield, so we're in something of a catch-22. Still, that approach is taking the lesser of two evils in my opinion. I know Oduro will get chance after chance if we compress the field, whereas I'm only pretty sure that their midfield will dominate possession if we play a deeper line.