There's no place on earth like BBVA Compass Stadium if you're looking to make D.C. United fans upset. To say it hasn't been a happy hunting ground is like saying the sun is hot. The Houston Dynamo have dominated the series between these two teams over the years, but "dominated" doesn't begin to cover just how United's trips to the Bayou City have gone.
United's record in Houston across all competitions is 0W-1D-10L. In those eleven games, we've seen 5 - that's five, f-i-v-e - DC goals. Nick DeLeon has the last United goal in Houston, but that was a playoff goal; in regular season play you'd have to go back to April 2011, with Marc Burch scoring a prototypical Marc Burch goal (note to guys in the wall on a Burch freekick: If you jump, he will score. Don't jump.).
And naturally, any discussion of this house of the damned must involve the single most important bad call to go against United in at least the past decade (and possibly ever, give or take a Fire goal in the 1998 MLS Cup final). I wake up every day hoping Andre Hainault and Ricardo Salazar both have simply miserable days filled with things like catching every red light, or having their preferred coffee place screw up their orders, and I'll even go so far as to wish bedbugs on them. Raphael Augusto's time with United was utterly forgettable save for this one moment, but it's a moment that cannot be forgotten.
OK, now that I've gotten that out of my system, we can move on to how this year's Dynamo is a very unusual version. To put it simply, they're bad. Not catastrophically bad, perhaps, but being on pace to get just 32 points is pretty terrible in MLS. Much like Chivas and TFC were thankful to have us around last year, Houston has to be glad to see Montreal flailing around as they sink further into the quicksand below.
The main issue is their defense, which is the worst in MLS. That's a radical departure for the Dynamo, who have characteristically made being hard to beat their bread and butter. This year, they can't keep the ball out of their own net - they give up two goals per game - and that means they're always behind, which means they're always chasing the game while their opponents can sit back and play on the counter. That set of circumstances has also hit their offense, which in terms of goals per game is only better than Montreal and Chivas.
Here's the thing, though: Houston was 5W-2D-5L after twelve games. Things have really gone to hell for them only recently, as the Dynamo are on a 0W-2D-6L run at the moment. It's not exactly a brutal stretch of games, either. They've lost 3-0 to both Montreal and San Jose, the teams on either side of them in the standings, and only once has short rest been an available excuse.
United actually kicked off this awful streak with that 2-0 win at RFK back in May. Dominic Kinnear's side lost four more in a row after that, failing to score a single goal of any kind in those games. They have actually managed to score two goals in each of their last three games, but their defensive struggles have allowed that relative outburst of goals go to waste, as they tied 2-2 twice and lost 4-2 at TFC.
Things may be about to change though. Part of their current run has to do with the absence of Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia for World Cup duty. Those two are Houston's main creative players, and Davis in particular has a talismanic effect on his teammates. They're back in the fold now, and each has a World Cup teammate joining them at the club. DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido aren't going to fix everything for the Dynamo, but they certainly up the quality available to Kinnear on the defensive side of the ball.
In Beasley, the Dynamo will get a more positionally aware left back who can provide a more reliable outlet in possession as well as better crossing and better timing on the overlap. That is, of course, assuming Kinnear uses Beasley at left back and not left (or even right) midfield. Garrido, meanwhile, is known as "The Beast" in Honduras for his physical approach, and the Dynamo have been a bit softer than they usually are. Garrido also brings some technical quality that wasn't available for Houston whenever Ricardo Clark was out, and Kinnear will likely look at those two as a double-pivot to shield a back four that still needs the help.
Will that make much of an impact on this game, though? It's hard to say. Beasley says that despite a couple of weeks off, he sees himself as fit enough to play. Garrido, meanwhile, was in preseason with his former club CD Olimpia, so while he may not be 100%, he should be awfully close. Kinnear really needs both signings to make an impact as soon as possible, so I'm expecting to see them both from the start today.
Houston has played a few formations this year, but they've mostly been a 4132 side. As I said earlier, however, the acquisition of Garrido points towards a 442 with two holding midfielders. Houston needs to shore up their defense first and foremost, and in any case players like Andrew Driver and Omar Cummings have done little to force Kinnear to keep one more attack-minded player somewhere in his starting eleven. Since I expect Beasley and Garrido to start, I also expect the flat 442:
Thanks to injuries, an uncommonly small roster, and under-performing players, there aren't too many question marks here. If Beasley isn't deemed fit by Kinnear, Corey Ashe will start at left back. Ashe has plenty of speed and brings some bite to the field, but his positioning is suspect. In addition, I've noticed over the years that he's not very comfortable when having to defend inverted wingers.
Now, if Ashe is getting forward regularly, those inverted players are having to defend regularly, but if United can get the attack going both Nick DeLeon and Chris Rolfe would be effective cutting inside. Neither meets the dictionary requirement of an inverted winger from the right, but both like to cut inside often enough that their preferred foot isn't really a factor here.
At center back, Houston has had issues all year. Eric Brunner was injured in the Dynamo's last league match - they've been off for two weeks - and didn't appear in their mid-season friendly against Aston Villa. He'll probably miss out here as well, which means a start for David Horst. Horst is a powerful player in the air, but when the ball is kept on the ground he struggles due to a lack of speed and some issues with anticipation.
Horst's partner will either be Jermaine Taylor or AJ Cochran. As recently as last year, Taylor looked like a very solid MLS center back. The wheels appear to have fallen off a bit for him this season though, and it's nearly a toss-up between him and 21 year old rookie Cochran (who will leave after this match for the USA under-23 camp in the Bahamas).
Houston really needs Taylor's athleticism to protect Horst from having to chase Eddie Johnson around, but it's hard to say where his head is at these days. If Kinnear opts for Horst and Cochran, United should be ready to play a steady diet of through balls for EJ and Luis Silva to chase down.
Further forward, I think Garrido has a better chance than Beasley of playing immediately. Servando Carrasco is the other choice in this alignment. He's been inconsistent this year, occasionally looking good in terms of his passing but often being behind the play defensively.
That leads me to believe that if Garrido is not ready to go yet, we may see the 4132 stick around for another week. In that case, Garcia would probably be the central attacking midfielder and Driver would be on the right. Kinnear could also play Garcia on the right, Davis in the middle, and Driver on his more natural left side, but Houston has consistently turned that option down.
Garrido or no, attacking the Dynamo centrally should produce chances. Clark has not looked like the same player since returning from a lengthy concussion-enforced absence, and even with Garrido's quality it's hard to just walk into a complicated position like defensive midfield and instantly mesh with your teammates.
Throw in the Dynamo's liabilities in central defense, and United should be able to break open the Houston defense regularly. If attacking straight down the middle isn't available, there's still a good chance that DeLeon and Rolfe will be able to cut inside and expose these issues.
Defensively, United's first focus has to be on Davis. Sean Franklin, in particular, needs to use his advantages in terms of speed and quickness to get tight to Davis and prevent him from picking his head up. As a wide player, Davis needs to give himself extra room to line up crosses because he doesn't have getaway speed to create separation. If Franklin is mentally sharp, he'll be able to suffocate Davis, and if you do that you've cut off Houston's main generator of chances.
On the other side, Garcia hasn't gotten attention this year because he's less comfortable playing centrally. Going to a standard 442 and adding Garrido means Garcia will be back in his more comfortable role as a right winger, which in turn may spark a return to form.
The problem with defending Garcia is that he can do everything: He's a terror on the dribble, his movement is great when he cuts inside to combine with teammates, his long-range shot is pretty decent, and he can also stay wide and cross like a traditional winger. Out of those possibilities, that last one is the most favorable outcome, because everything else Garcia does tends to ruin defensive structures altogether. If Garcia is kept out by the touchline, United should be able to defend his crosses.
Giles Barnes has been Houston's best player this season. He's an unusual guy in MLS: He has near-elite speed and underrated strength, but he's also a withdrawn forward who has spent time as an attacking midfielder. The issue with Barnes is that he's not necessarily full of ideas; rather, he plays off of other people and usually applies the finishing touch as opposed to the defense-splitting pass.
Dealing with Barnes is more about cutting down on his service. That's not just through balls, either; Barnes has a very good leap, and is at this point more of an aerial threat than Will Bruin. United has been good about tracking runners, but the Black-and-Red's ability to stop attacks from amounting to much has been even more vital. Continuing that trend and forcing Houston to settle for slow possession or obvious long shots means less of a threat from Barnes, which should prevent Houston from keeping their recent two-goals-a-game pace up.
Bruin is arguably the most notorious United killer in MLS, but he's had a tough season. He's got 7 goals, which would put him on pace for his normal 12 or 13 on the season. However, he's only scored four times since March 15th, and his goal in their last match broke a 711 minute scoreless streak. Bruin is known to be streaky, so this last goal in Toronto may get him back on track.
On set pieces, the Dynamo will always be a threat. Barnes and Bruin are good in the air, and Horst has surely been referred to as a "strapping lad" by someone at some point in his career. With Davis delivering the free kicks and corners, United needs to be especially focused on the near post. Most of Bobby Boswell's Dynamo goals came from a hard, relatively short near post run followed by a glancing header. Davis hits driven services, so it requires less work on the part of his targets in the box.
Generally speaking, teams that are good at offensive set pieces are good at defending them as well. This year's Dynamo are, oddly enough, not holding up that end of the bargain. It's not for a lack of size, strength, or aggression; rather, it's a simple lack of focus. Like many struggling teams, Houston is losing their way in these crucial moments. United will, as per usual, have four really good targets in Boswell, EJ, Steve Birnbaum, and Perry Kitchen. Taking advantage of Houston's shakiness in this department would go a long way towards finally bagging three points in this fixture.
Overall there are a lot of reasons to feel optimistic about this match. It's a good moment to meet Houston, as they'll certainly be better in a few weeks once Beasley and Garrido have had a chance to build an understanding with their teammates. Obviously history points to a disappointing trip to Houston for our boys in black, but if United wants to keep up this wholly unexpected Supporters Shield chase, winning road games against teams with the worst defense in the league is kind of a must.