Wednesday night, D.C. United hosts the two-time defending Eastern Conference (Playoff) Champion Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium. It will be the second meeting this season between two of the more decorated sides in MLS history - though the Dynamo have certainly had more recent success than the Black-and-Red. At the start of the weekend (before the Orange's win over the LA Galaxy on Sunday night), we exchanged some questions with Stephen Eastepp, Managing Editor of our Houston-flavored sister blog Dynamo Theory. The results of that exchange are below.
Questions for Dynamo Theory
1. Wednesday's match between your Dynamo and our Black-and-Red sees two teams of opposites. One is winning games, while the other isn't. One is built on set pieces; the other is frail against the dead ball. But what I want to look at is the schedule: Houston will be playing their second game in four days and their third in ten, while United will be coming off an 8-day break. Add to that the fact that Houston's game on Sunday is out in Los Angeles, and I have to ask: how will the Orange respond to the travel and tight schedule?
Travel is honestly a concern for this road trip, no matter who downplays it. Travelling across the country and facing three tough opponents in eight days will surely take its toll on the team. I will say though I'm more concerned with their level of fatigue for next weekend's game against Sporting Kansas City rather than the midweek matchup against DCU.
While the two teams are currently in different areas of the table, you have to remember the Dynamo have proven to be a different club away from BBVA Compass Stadium. With their next two matches on the road, its important Houston comes out with some points so they continue to hold on to good positioning, but also gain some confidence. DCU has a tough losing streak right now, and from their end I'm sure it would be a confidence builder to beat Houston also. That's going to make it an interesting matchup.
2. Dom Kinnear's teams always play a certain way, even when he experimented with the 4-3-3 last season. Are there any changes in Houston's bruiser style since our two teams met to open the year, or are the Dynamo who we thought they were?
I think the Dynamo are an open book - it's a gritty, tough, get in your face type of opponent that never quits. I think Dom has always coached to a certain style, but he's so good he can make adjustments (like the 4-3-3) but still maintain the team's identity. As for the players and how'd they make an impact in 2013, that might be a bit different than expected. Omar Cummings has yet to overcome injuries, Andrew Driver has been outstanding as a spot starter, and Warren Creavalle is taking big steps in his second season.
3. Even with the sale of Geoff Cameron to Stoke City last year and the loss of Andre "Don't Call it a Red Card" Hainault over the winter, the Dynamo pretty clearly have a strong roster, with guys like Brad Davis, Will Bruin, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Adam Moffatt and Tally Hall on the field. Which one guy do you make sure to have your eye on every game?
Don't keep your eye on one of those mentioned players, try and watch them all! All joking aside, I think the standout for Houston so far is a player you didn't even mention - Giles Barnes. It's no secret I've been calling for his success this season. He's certainly lived up to it and has been the offensive spark the Dynamo needed, although I think most (including myself) expected him to make that impact in midfield. Barnes is a guy that DCU will need to watch closely... but be careful, don't watch too closely because we all know how much Will Bruin likes to score against the Black-and-Red.
By the way, love the nickname for Hainault. Some things will never be forgotten.
Bonus: Bobby Boswell was a fan favorite when he played in D.C., as much for his antics as his surprising initial emergence as a very good center back. Is he pulling any antics down in Space City?
Without a doubt, Bobby is the fun guy to keep up with on the squad. I don't think his antics are quite at the same level of his early career in DC, but he's always having fun with the press and with fans on social media. He's managed to gain the respect of his teammates and really is a leader on the field and the locker room in Houston - even with all the antics he pulls.
Questions for B&RU
1. Calling D.C. United's start to the season tough would be an understatement. If I recall correctly, DCU went on a crazy run - something like 7 games unbeaten - to end the 2012 season and marched into the playoffs as the number two seed in the East. They went on to lose to Houston, but seemed to set themselves up for a bright 2013. Now we are eight matches in, and the Black-and-Red have lost six of those and sit in the cellar of the East. Can you give us some insight as to what the heck happened and is there any hope to salvage the year?
United's unbeaten run to end the 2012 season was something special. With Dwayne De Rosario out with a knee injury, Ben Olsen shifted his team to a more defensive posture, using a double pivot in central midfield to give his fullbacks - Andy Najar and Chris Korb - license to bomb forward with something like abandon. It worked just well enough that Olsen and the front office (and many fans, myself included) thought the team would be a contender with the return of DeRo to the fold and just one or two pieces. So the offseason was spent mostly standing pat, and adding depth to the center of midfield and a young designated player to the forward pool.
There's no doubt that D.C. overperformed in the stretch last season, but what's happened since goes well beyond "regression to the mean." The team was unable to create any offense whatsoever in the first month-and-a-half of the year. While they've improved on that facet somewhat in the last few weeks, the defense has suddenly lost its stability, and now the Black-and-Red ship goals way too easily. They haven't been getting any favors from the refs, either: United have had two goals wrongly disallowed this year, both of them either equalizing or go-ahead goals at the time and both in losses during this hellish streak the team is mired in right now.
As to whether the team can salvage the 2013 season, it's tough to say. The hole they've dug is big enough that anything short of a miracle run from here through October probably won't get the team into the playoffs. But there's always the U.S. Open Cup to add a record thirteenth major trophy to our collection and punch our ticket to the CONCACAF Champions League.
2. It's hard to find positive in such a negative start to the year, but every team has some. Let's say DCU start to turn things around - who (individually) and what part of the team (defense, midfield, etc) would you say is the most dangerous part of this year's club. In other words, putting their poor start aside, what is Houston's main concern on Wednesday?
Every month, we hold a Player of the Month poll on B&RU. In March, the winner was goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and in April's poll - a month where United failed to win a game - d-mid Perry Kitchen looks to win the honors. And that's the season so far: Hamid, the last couple weeks notwithstanding, has stood on his head to keep United in games with a chance at points, and Kitchen has improved over his first two seasons and is now involved on both sides of the ball more than he's ever been.
It pains me to say it, but the most dangerous part of United's attack may be the defense. A new development in United's attack has been the willingness of centerback Brandon McDonald to sneak higher into the attack and unleash long shots or chip the ball over the opposing defense to on-rushing teammates. As long as it's used judiciously, that, along with Dejan Jakovic's eagerness to step forward into space with the ball on his feet, can serve to keep the Dynamo defense honest, rather than falling deep into their own box. The last few games also saw D.C.'s fullbacks finally start going forward more like they did last season, creating new angles in the build-up and generating far more crossing opportunities than we saw early this year.
3. I can't help but ask about fans confidence level in Ben Olsen at this point of the season. Are there rumblings about a coaching change, or are fans confident Olsen will get the team through this challenging time?
There's definitely some angst in the fanbase at the moment, though I think there's no more than a small minority who are already calling for Olsen's head. GM Dave Kasper and managing partner Jason Levien have both responded to reporters' questions by saying that Olsen will be around for the duration. Benny is a young coach, and he's still developing tactically, but he's proven a good man manager through his tenure at United. Judging by player quotes, body language and reports from the locker room, he's nowhere near losing his players' confidence or effort. If the losing streak continues through this month or the team fails to improve through the season, then all bets are off, but as it stands I'd be very surprised to see anybody other than Ben Olsen at the helm of this team next season.
Bonus: I read that Nick DeLeon was in back in training and could make an appearance in the 18 against Houston. How big of an impact has his absence been since his stellar rookie year, and how much will it help the 2013 squad?
Nicky's absence this season arguably started well before his injury, as he (and the rest of United's attack, including Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario) was largely ineffective even when on the field this year. Whether it was losing right touchline combinations with an overlapping Andy Najar - sold to Anderlecht this winter - or his new Amish Sisqo look or just the suboptimal play of the rest of the team, DeLeon didn't look like the rookie of the year finalist he was in 2012. All that said, if he can get back onto the field and look like the winger whose first touch, vision and finishing helped him set a D.C. United rookie record for goals scored last year, the boon to the team could be immeasurable.