Things are going well for D.C. United these...wait a second. Didn't I just write that exact phrase? Thanks to a scheduling quirk, United will face the Houston Dynamo for the second time in two weeks this afternoon.
So just go read my old scouting report.
Just kidding. Despite the fact that our 3-2 win that night still feels relatively fresh, things have changed quite a bit for both sides. Most significantly, Houston will be opening their lovely new home. After weeks on the road and acceptable-but-not-great results, the Dynamo will be fired up to christen BBVA Compass Stadium with a win. Houston's last stadium opener - their first game after moving from San Jose - was a 5-2 win over the Colorado Rapids, in which Brian Ching scored 4 goals.
On the other hand, all of those goals were set up by Dwayne De Rosario, and the winning goalkeeper on the day was United assistant coach Pat Onstad. Not only that, but DC's last appearance on NBC Sports Network against a team from Texas was a 4-1 romp over FC Dallas. Obviously this means it's in the bag!
Actually, this one is likely to be far more difficult than the day Maicon Santos became Maicon F. Santos. Aside from the big emotional boost the Dynamo will get opening up their stadium, center backs Emiliano Dudar and Dejan Jakovic did not travel to Houston., Thus, we're more likely to see a defense similar to the one that gave the Dynamo 2 goals rather easily in the second half at RFK. In addition, Houston's best player - Brad Davis - only made a cameo appearance in the District. Today, he'll be ready to go 90 minutes, and will likely have a chip on his shoulder after wasting two great chances Wednesday night in Houston's rather unfortunate 1-0 loss at NYRB.
Houston's 442 saw some unfamiliar faces starting in New Jersey on Wednesday, but none of the missing regulars were out due to injury. Dominic Kinnear was likely just resting some players to ensure his best side is available today:
The only truly uncertain position is right midfield. Colin Clark's suspension for using an anti-gay slur ended Wednesday night, and he came in for the final 17 minutes. However, Kinnear could also go with Je-Vaughn Watson, speedster Calen Carr, or even Academy product Alex Dixon (fresh off his first minutes in 2012 on Wednesday).
Clark is the most likely choice, though. He'll be fresh, and this is a good opportunity for him to get to work on winning over Dynamo fans after letting them down in such a public manner. The other choices all come with a caveat: Watson is one of the more defense-averse players in MLS, Carr is a natural forward, and Dixon is inexperienced (and may be more natural in Luiz Camargo's central role).
Andre Hainault and Corey Ashe are the likely fullbacks, but Jermaine Taylor is arguably the only Dynamo defender currently meeting expectations (save Wednesday night; more on that in a second), despite playing out of position on the flanks (mostly on the left, but he was on the right at Red Bull Arena). If Kinnear is still unhappy with Hainault's form, we could see Taylor again.
While the circumstances and faces have changed since our last meeting, some things haven't. The Dynamo back four - normally the foundation of the club's success - has been shaky at best for weeks now. They were at it again Wednesday night, as a ridiculous decision by Ashe to pass the ball slowly back to Tally Hall was directly responsible for the game's only goal. Just to underline the nature of this foolishness, Taylor very nearly did the exact same thing in the 88th minute.
That fits right in with recent results, as United hit the Dynamo up for 3 goals at RFK, and even the anemic Columbus Crew managed to score twice on April 21st. Houston normally treats defending as a cohesive unit as the #1 principle to adhere to, but that simply isn't happening these days. The midfield has lacked the energy to win enough tackles and loose balls, and the center back pairing of Geoff Cameron and Bobby Boswell has looked less like one of the best in MLS and more like a midfielder playing out of position next to a castoff from a team that couldn't defend.
United must maintain the attacking verve that has become customary since the aforementioned thrashing of Dallas. The psychological incentive Houston has to win this game is something we simply can't match, but as Dynamo Theory's Zach Woosley points out, it doesn't come without issues. That high level of motivation could quickly morph into frustration if United is able to create early chances (and particularly if we can score the game's first goal). Think of United's task in this department as a form of mental judo: Houston's excitement could also be their undoing.
I mentioned that the Dynamo midfield didn't have the get-up-and-go to challenge United in terms of tackling and winning 50/50 balls; that will not be the case this time. Houston may or may not correct their issues in terms of positioning, anticipation, and maintaining an overall solid shape, but I guarantee that they won't be nearly as easy to out-hustle this time around. It may sound like a cliche, but the Black-and-Red will have to dig deep and find a way to keep the "who wants it more" factor close. Otherwise, Houston will be very comfortable, as simply battling harder than their opponent is often a huge component to the Dynamo's success.
In the attack, United would be well advised to mix in plenty of early services. Houston has been making decisions slowly as a group, and something as simple as a deep cross to an alert striker could pay dividends. In addition, our wide players will again need to look for quick combinations with De Ro and our strikers. Hainault and Ashe are good defenders 1v1, but have positional issues and can be tricked into mistakes.
That quick combination play would be well adapted to our whole offense. Houston plays a flat midfield four, so our diamond will allow us the luxury of having De Ro in an area not really patrolled by anyone. Adam Moffat is the defensive midfielder, but he doesn't play nearly as deep as you usually see around the league. Moving the ball quickly will prevent him from being able to track back fast enough to pressure De Ro, who we all know can do wonders with space and time.
Defensively, the ideas of staying patient and disciplined while avoiding cheap fouls are even more important this time than they were at RFK. With Davis in from the start, free kicks and corner kicks will be an enormous threat. United will be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of size, so simple stuff like staying with your mark on such plays will also be critical.
Speaking of the Dynamo left midfielder, our right-sided players need to cut off the passing lanes between the rest of the team and Davis. Rather than trying to defend his services, we should be looking to minimize the number of times he gets the ball. United will be better off funneling the Dynamo's possession into the middle or down the right. Not only will this take Davis out of the game, but it will also mean that the forward pairing of United killer Will Bruin and captain Brian Ching will get fewer crosses altogether, taking away their preferred method for getting their chances.
Meanwhile, the Dynamo offense is hardly the most complex when in possession. Houston doesn't necessarily prize keeping the ball for long spells; their direct style means that following a turnover, United's defenders and midfielders must get into good defensive positions as soon as possible. Houston is the kind of team that wants to pump the ball into the box immediately after a turnover, so staying focused and being quick to adapt to new situations will be of the utmost importance.
Finally, there's the issue of containing Bruin, which won't just come from denying Davis much time with the ball. Bruin's high work rate means that he ends up getting to a fair number of knockdowns from Ching. While United won most of those battles overall at RFK, we went through a spell where disorganization (due to Dudar having to leave the game injured) and some satisfaction with a good first half crept in. That stretch of the game was precisely when Bruin struck for two goals.
A big reason Bruin has succeeded against United has been that we just haven't been very organized or focused in the back. He doesn't do anything in particular other than work really hard and finish fairly well. Soccer can be a simple game, and in the case of finally stopping Bruin it will come down to mundane stuff like getting to loose balls before he does - Perry Kitchen could be a huge factor in that regard - and not being outworked on an individual basis. Bruin tends to play down the middle or slightly to the right of center, so Brandon McDonald (likely at left-center back if Robbie Russell is again deployed centrally) and Daniel Woolard will have to be particularly dialed in.
The overriding factor today will be dealing with the atmosphere. Houston will be giving this their very best in terms of effort and desire, and that can overcome a lot. If United can make it less of a blood-and-guts, track-meet style of game, and place more of an emphasis on our advantage in terms of soccer IQ and skill, we will likely frustrate the Dynamo.
Being strong in the first 15-30 minutes will also be critical; an early goal for us might short-circuit the Dynamo's momentum, but at the very least we need to survive that spell without going behind and giving a struggling team (winless in 5 games) some confidence. Conceding early will only add to the undeniable mental advantage a team gets from opening their new home (not to mention bringing the crowd into the game even more).
The tactics might be fascinating, but this game will be more about collective psychology than anything else. A mentally strong United can mitigate the Dynamo's excitement, which opens the door for us to win by being the smarter, more skillful soccer team. On the other hand, if character is in short supply for Olsen's Army on the night, it will probably be an awfully long 90 minutes.