We've always been at war with the Houston Dynamo.
That might not actually be true, and I may just be forcing a 1984 reference, but it is starting to seem that way. It's only July, and D.C. United is playing the Dynamo for the third time this season. Most teams haven't even been to BBVA Compass Stadium, and it's already played out for us.
On top of that, there's already an element of familiarity between the teams. Danny Cruz started for Houston in last season's MLS Cup final, Dwayne De Rosario is still revered for the trophies he helped the Dynamo win, and assistant coach Pat Onstad was their goalkeeper for many years. Meanwhile, Bobby Boswell as as well-liked in Houston as he was here, defender Jermaine Taylor had a trial with United a year before ending up in Texas, rookie winger Brian Ownby trained here while still in school at Virginia, and Will Bruin relies on games against the Black-and-Red for about 50% of his goals.
The good news - at least from the perspective of a blogger who has already written 3,400 words about the Dynamo - is that this is a significantly changed Dynamo team from our last meeting on May 12th. Designated Player Oscar Boniek Garcia has arrived (after literally years of me saying that some MLS team somewhere had to sign this guy), USMNT defender Geoff Cameron is about to leave the Dynamo for Stoke City, and head coach Dominic Kinnear has instituted a rare formation change to boot.
In other words, this is like playing a different team in a lot of ways. Garcia's arrival means the Dynamo have a true right winger, whereas they previously used forward Calen Carr, attacking midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson, or left midfielder Colin Clark there. The formation change means new roles for stars like Brad Davis, and has also seen Brian Ching reduced to a substitute's role. Personally, I'd like to thank the Dynamo for giving me something to talk about this week (and hope their generosity extends to handing us some soft goals).
So about that formation change: Following a rather embarrassing 4-2 loss to the Montreal Impact, Kinnear has gone from his orthodox 442 to the currently fashionable 433:
Despite the fact that this new formation requires a lot of new responsibilities, the players remain largely the same. There are only two significant question marks: Will Cameron play, and who will man the right-center midfield role?
On that first question, the answer is almost certainly "no." Cameron is healthy, but the Dynamo are doing the reasonable thing, which is to avoid an injury that could ruin the proposed transfer to Stoke (a move the Dynamo have publicly supported, and one that would bring them roughly two-thirds of the alleged $2.7 million transfer fee). Playing Cameron would be reckless on Houston's part to such a degree that it can probably be ruled out as a possibility.
The other issue basically comes down to Luiz Camargo and Watson. In the 442, these two traded the job of partnering Adam Moffat back and forth all season. Camargo's fitness was an issue, but then Watson's penchant for taking plays off defensively kept him from seizing the job. Camargo has started since the move to the 433, but Watson was injured and missed those games. The Jamaican is currently listed as "probable," so Kinnear may have a choice to make. My money is still on Camargo, but Watson will still probably see minutes at some point.
Houston have maintained their direct style of play in the 433, so things won't feel that different. The most significant change is that Ching will come off the bench, while the inconsistent Macoumba Kandji has come in as the left forward. Kandji can veer between brilliant and anonymous, and it often comes down to how things go for him in the very early stages of games.
It'll mostly be up to Robbie Russell to keep Kandji from gaining any confidence, which will mean shutting down the lanky former Red Bull/Rapid when he looks to dribble. Kandji isn't the best passer and generally doesn't pop up in goal-scoring positions too often, but he does cause problems when he can beat an isolated fullback and come into the box from wide.
On the opposite flank is Garcia, a player who starts for Honduras at right midfield. If that position and country sound familiar, it's because we have a really, really good Honduran right midfielder in Andy Najar. Garcia keeps Najar on the bench for Los Catrachos, so it's safe to say he's an excellent player. I've been an admirer for years.
Essentially, Garcia brings the whole package: He's a threat to score, he's strong on the dribble, he crosses well, and he can come inside and hurt you by playing combinations. He also works hard off the ball, and makes good runs. His ability to help out deeper will allow the Dynamo to temporarily revert to a 442 if Davis wants to drift to the left to play one of his trademark crosses into the area.
What I'm trying to say is that Daniel Woolard is going to need to bring his A game, and he'll need help from left midfield and Perry Kitchen as well.
All that said, the danger man is still Bruin, who essentially scores 1 or 2 goals minimum against us every time. Bruin's main assets are that he never stops working and seems to get smarter with his runs every week. In some ways he reminds me of a stronger version of Joe-Max Moore, if Moore had been a bit more of a poacher and bit less of a threat from long range.
United's center backs will need to be alert of Bruin's movements whenever he's not on the ball. If there's one weakness of the former Indiana Hoosier, it's that he doesn't really create his own chances. However, with players like Davis, Garcia, Camargo, and Kandji looking to play through balls and crosses, giving Bruin even half a step is a recipe for trouble. Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald (or Emiliano Dudar) are probably more athletic than Bruin, but the bigger challenge is to be focused enough to anticipate his movements and coordinated enough as a pairing to keep him shackled.
The change to a 433 hasn't really helped Houston going forward (only two goals in three games), but they have been stronger defensively, with two straight shutouts coming into Sunday's game. This proves two things: First, it's a good lesson on how formations do not dictate whether you'll be better on offense or defense. Second, it underlines the narrower game Houston wants. The Dynamo were not particularly hard to play through in their 442, in part because the wide players weren't helping the central midfielders defensively.
In the 433, that's no longer the case. Camargo, Moffat, and Davis have been pretty effective in pressuring opposing playmakers, and as a result both the Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City found themselves a bit bottled up down the middle.
How should United combat this? The same way we've dealt with various 4231/4141 set-ups. Our wide midfielders need to get narrow defensively and turn a 3v2 deficit into a 4v3 advantage, and we'll also need help from our forwards (defensively) and some overlaps from our outside backs (offensively). If United matches or exceeds Houston's work rate and shows good positional sense, we can effectively overwhelm Houston on the ball while also preventing them from pressuring us when we're in possession.
In the attack, it will be important to play quickly and mix things up. Any Houston center back pairing will eat up long balls, lofted crosses, and slow play. That means United needs to think faster - which will expose the speed of Boswell (not to mention the dicey positioning of both Hainault and Corey Ashe) - and play combinations. Crosses need to be driven, and off-the-ball runs need to be sharp and have a purpose. Fortunately for United, this has been more or less our M.O. going forward.
Finally, one note that never changes with the Dynamo: Avoid conceding set pieces! Only KC has an equivalent combination of service and targets. Davis usually serves up a driven ball into a spot where it can be turned into something, and Houston's squad is full of big, strong, aggressive players. Furthermore, Kinnear embraces this fact and has made it a point of pride for the Dynamo. Psychologically it's a huge source of confidence, and for a team that hasn't been banging in goals left and right, you can be sure that Houston will be looking to jump-start their offense from a corner kick or any free kick within 40 yards.
Ultimately, the Dynamo are the kind of mid-table team that contenders should beat on the road. They're in transition in more ways than one, and unlike our visit to open BBVA up, there won't be a huge emotional boost for the Dynamo to count on. Furthermore, United didn't handle the heat on that day well; our dismantling of the Impact in arguably worse conditions is a sign that we'll be better prepared for the Houston heat (forecasts currently point to temperatures in the lower 80s with a 40% chance of rain).
Even with those advantages - forgot to mention Kitchen leaving the game early with what fortunately wasn't a serious knee injury - Houston only beat us 1-0, and Woolard probably should have scored a stoppage time equalizer to boot. Adjusting for the different circumstances, United has every right to go to Houston not just hoping for three points, but expecting them. That's how things are supposed to be when you're chasing the Supporters Shield.