Normally, scouting the Houston Dynamo is not a particularly complicated endeavor. Dom Kinnear has given us years of evidence in terms of how he wants to play. The formation may change a bit here or there, but ultimately you know what you're going to get: Some mix of Brad Davis, physical play, and a preference for being somewhat direct going forward. Houston's secret is keeping things simple and being very good at what they do. This is not a team in search of an identity.
This time around, however, things might be more complicated. This year's Dynamo have been inconsistent in both their performance and their results.In an eight-day span earlier this month, they won 4-1 at Chivas USA but also managed to lose 5-2 to Real Salt Lake. Pull back to view their whole last month of play and you see things like a stretch with three wins in four games, but also a 4-0 loss to the Red Bulls.
On the road, things have not gone well for Houston. Their travels have seen them roll up a record of 1W-1D-3L, with five goals scored against nine allowed. Four of those five goals came in that thrashing of Chivas, which may be an outlier given how poorly the other games went.
Then again, when it comes to the Dynamo, D.C. United can never feel too confident. United is still winless in Houston, and our home record against the Dynamo isn't all that much better. The Dynamo have won six of the last seven meetings, with United only managing three goals (and zero wins, as the odd match was the 1-1 playoff draw at RFK in 2012). Meanwhile, the Dynamo have two separate 4-0 wins in that span. It's safe to say that things have not gone well against Houston, in other words.
This game is also a tricky one to judge due to player availability. The Dynamo will be without Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia, both of whom are with their respective national teams. Ricardo Clark, barring a sudden and dramatic turnaround, will miss out with a concussion. That's three quarters of Kinnear's first-choice midfield, and it doesn't even count center back Eric Brunner and winger Tony Cascio, who will both miss out due to injury as well.
The Dynamo are carrying a smaller roster as is, and on the weekend they played the Galaxy with only six substitutes available rather than the normal seven. That was with Garcia available, which won't be the case tomorrow. This isn't a particularly deep team, but right now Kinnear has no choice. The Dynamo are also flying to San Jose following their game with United for a match against the Quakes on Saturday, so a rotation featuring some lesser-known players is kind of a must in one of these two games.
All that said, I think Kinnear will try to field his best available team against United given that it's an Eastern Conference game. The trick is figuring out who those players are, and how Kinnear will line them up. The Dynamo were recently playing a 4141 and calling it a 433, but scrapped that for the Galaxy and played a 4132. There is also the possibility that they play a regular old 442 now that Servando Carrasco is no longer suspended, but I'm guessing he goes with the 4132:
There aren't too many question marks, but those that exist are interesting. The defensive midfield role will either go to Carrasco or Warren Creavalle. Both are decent enough players, but Creavalle's MLS career has shown more promise than Carrasco's to this point. However, Creavalle's form in 2014 has taken a nosedive; only against LA this weekend did he start to look like his old self. Given that this is one of the only positions where Kinnear can rotate without a major drop-off, I'm not sure who he'll start. I give the slight edge to Carrasco, but don't be surprised if he starts both players, pushes Giles Barnes up front, and drops a striker.
The choice between the two players is an interesting one. Creavalle is more likely to quietly go about his business; his passing style is more about connecting the dots rather than getting assists himself, and he doesn't bring a remarkable edge to the game. Carrasco, on the other hand, is very aggressive but also has a bigger passing range than Creavalle. That can get him in trouble sometimes, as he'll choose the more difficult pass when an easy pass is called for, but it can also open up the Dynamo attack.
The other question mark is out on the right flank, where the Dynamo are severely short-handed. Omar Cummings subbed in for Garcia after he came out injured in the first half against the Galaxy, but he's more of a forward who can play wide in a five-man midfield. In a 4132, he's not that comfortable with the defensive part of the job, and on the road I think Kinnear will at least consider Brian Ownby.
Ownby is not a conservative wide man by any means, but a) Houston has tried him out as a right back here and there and b) he's more of a natural right midfielder than Cummings. Even if Cummings does get the start, his 64 minutes on the weekend almost doubled his season total (thanks in part to injury), I expect to see Ownby play some part in this match. He's got speed and is perfectly comfortable with staying wide and running at defenders, which is also what United will be facing in the form of Andrew Driver down the Houston left.
Across the back, Jermaine Taylor had a recent - and apparently sudden - groin strain, but the Jamaican is back and should partner David Horst in the middle of the back four. Neither player is a defensive leader, though, and that could be important for United. Houston is good at emergency defending and there's plenty of bravery and athleticism back there, but they don't diagnose plays very well. United's movement - particularly the exchanges between Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe - should be the emphasis here, as the Dynamo can be confused if you throw enough moving parts at them.
Down the wings, I'd recommend more attempts to play on the dribble from United. Kofi Sarkodie and Corey Ashe both have a tendency to pick up cards. The referee for tomorrow's game will be Alan Kelly, who has been consistent but is very strict (it's a small sample size, but he's called over 30 fouls a game so far this season). If we can get one of those two an early yellow card, we should attack that flank relentlessly. Sarkodie has picked up that second yellow more than once in his career, while Ashe never seems comfortable when he has to tone down his aggressiveness.
Playing through the midfield, United will need to keep the ball moving quickly. With Barnes and Cummings both playing roles that aren't their specialties, there should be gaps to exploit. Those two simply aren't going to read the defensive side of the game as quickly as a natural would, and without Clark in there to shut down those gaps with his ability to cover so much ground, United should be able to move through the midfield at pace. If there was a lesson from the draw against Montreal, it's that speed of play and speed of thought are vital.
Defending the Dynamo will be tough, especially with such an attack-first midfield. Barnes has three goals in four games and poses a unique threat. In his younger days, Barnes was an elite track athlete in the 100 meters, which is not the sort of speed you normally see from central players in soccer. Sure, not every goal he scores will require that speed, but anticipating his runs rather than simply tracking them will be important for the United midfield.
Coping with Driver down the left will require some strong individual defending, no matter if it's Chris Korb retaining his place or Sean Franklin returning from injury. Driver is more or less a stereotypical English winger: He stays wide, he wants to hit crosses, and his first touch is always going to be an attempt to set himself up to run at his defender. United needs to be prepared for that, because Driver has enough of a burst to get through the midfield layer and isolate his man. Stopping him can't just be left to United's right back.
Up top, the Dynamo have a very Houston Dynamo sort of forward pairing. Will Bruin is no longer the most physically imposing forward for them now that rookie Mark Sherrod has pushed his way into the starting lineup with two goals against RSL and an assist on the winner against LA. Both players are powerful and work very hard for their team, so you can count on seeing a lot of individual battles throughout the match. Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke are going to have to bring their A game tomorrow, because the Dynamo's size up top combined with their second-choice midfield will probably see a fairly high number of long balls and headers to be won.
2012 excepted, this was precisely the kind of forward duo that has troubled United for years. Fortunately, this year's team seems more at home facing that sort of soccer. It still bears mentioning, though, that it's not purely about one center back beating one forward. Winning the initial ball is always nice, but the second ball is where this sort of game is won or lost.
Boswell and Parke may well dominate Bruin and Sherrod in the air, but if we don't pick up the ensuing knockdowns it will be useless. One of Houston's "secrets" is just plain old fundamental hunger to win loose balls. It's not fancy, it's not complicated, and it's not sexy, but it wins games. United has to have eleven players on the field with that sort of mentality, because Houston has always had a knack for sniffing out the one or two guys who would rather keep their jersey clean for 90 minutes and exploiting them.
Normally set pieces are a huge worry with the Dynamo, but they don't really have a good person to take them right now. Driver isn't a bad crosser, but their ability to threaten in these spots is significantly lower without Davis serving in his traditionally driven corner kicks. It is worth noting that Barnes has a very hard shot from distance, so we may see him get the green light on free kicks due to lack of other options.
At the other end, Houston still has plenty of size and strength, but there's been a certain lack of organization about them this season when defending set pieces. If United can draw up a more intricate set piece or two, the Dynamo could be confused into losing track of someone like Boswell or Eddie Johnson. In midweek games -which are usually played at a slow pace and feature few goals - that sort of thing can make all the difference.
After throwing two points away with a flat display against the Impact, the Black-and-Red could really use three points. Houston is traveling on short rest, and they have to travel all the way across the country for a game on the weekend as well. As tough as it might be to find the energy on short rest, a higher tempo through the midfield and a willingness to fight for every loose ball could well swing this one in United's favor. It won't exorcise the ghost of Andre Hainault, but the East is likely to be a logjam at the end of the season. Winning games like this one will be the sort of thing that gets United into a playoff spot; losing this sort of game may well see United do without postseason play once again.