There used to be an air of inevitability around the Houston Dynamo. No, they were not going to win the Supporters Shield. No, they would not always play pretty soccer. Yes, they would make the playoffs. Yes, they were strong contenders to advance to MLS Cup. For D.C. United, there were some specifics that could be depended on: Yes, trips to Houston would end in a bad loss. Yes, Will Bruin was going to score.
United finally ended one of these constants last year, winning 3-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium in October. The man behind most of these reliable outcomes, Dominic Kinnear, ended his time in Space City soon thereafter so he could return to San Jose. Bruin isn't likely to start. The times, they are a-changin'.
Well, maybe not all of the things. New Dynamo boss Owen Coyle was previously known for emphasizing possession despite being in charge of a promoted club in the English Premier League, but his Houston side has more than a little Kinnear to it. It's not just that the starting lineup is almost entirely unchanged; it's that he's landed on a gameplan that is far more pragmatic than anything else. The Dynamo are trying to hide some flaws and emphasize what they have in strengths, and the resulting team is built more to stop soccer than to play it.
That means the 442 Kinnear always played, and that Coyle seemed to be planning to use in the preseason is out. Coyle will probably bring it back when Erick Torres joins the club in a couple of months, but right now he has no reason to play two forwards. Bruin has appeared to have little confidence in 2015, and no one's particularly worried about Chandler Hoffman (who still looks like a project despite being in his fourth pro season). Rob Lovejoy is more of a winger, and Jason Johnson was just traded away for Alex, who is not a forward.
As such, there's no reason to expect a switch away from the 4141 Houston has used in recent games:
We'll start in the back, where Tyler Deric has held off the challenge of ex-United keeper and tastemaker Joe Willis by basically standing on his head in between the sticks. Deric has won more MLS Save of the Week awards than everyone else in the league thus far.
He'll be behind a back four that holds few mysteries. Kofi Sarkodie and DaMarcus Beasley will start on the flanks, providing speed and a willingness to get forward (though both have, thus far, only really acted in support of attacks rather than overlapping and being a threat). Jermaine Taylor will start in central defense, but his partner is in question. Raul Rodriguez has looked good when available, but he's had two different injuries already. His participation is in question because of a nasty collision that left him with a concussion and cuts around his eye, and the latest from Darrell Lovell is that he still has some testing to pass.
Assuming that Rodriguez doesn't play, we'll see David Horst in his spot. Horst is a center back from a different era: He's big, he's slow, he's not comfortable with having the ball at his feet, and he'd prefer to spend the whole game winning headers. His presence should encourage United to attack more on the ground and less through the air, because as strong as he is going up for aerial challenges, he's a liability when the ball's on the grass.
Houston first tried this formation out in LA, where Nathan Sturgis played the deep role and Luis Garrido was in the midfield four. Since then, they've been swapped, and that makes some sense. Sturgis is never going to wow anyone on the ball, but his passing is tidy enough. More importantly, Garrido has played as an anchor for the Honduran national team many times, and it's a more natural role for him.
Add in Ricardo Clark and you have a central midfield entirely comprised of defensive midfielders. If that sounds like a team designed to grind games into dust, it's mostly because it is. The Dynamo back four is getting praise right now for their low goals against total, but Coyle isn't fooled by the fact that Deric is playing at his absolute ceiling. It's a defense that needs help, and this is where the help comes from. Clark will be the member of the trio that has the freedom to jump into the attack, but he's mainly a threat through his speed and athleticism. He's never going to be a creative midfielder, and Coyle isn't asking him to cover those duties right now.
Houston's attack at this point largely consists of the runs of the most attacking three players dictating when to play them in behind. It's much more opportunistic than it is a sustained attack, since the Dynamo aren't looking to play through a particular player. On the left, Brad Davis doesn't have the speed to simply take off after long through balls, so he has to check back and combine with someone first. He's still Brad Davis though, so United should be very wary of him seeing much of the ball.
The right wing is where there's a real question. Oscar Boniek Garcia had a very poor game against Montreal last week, and topped that performance off by tweaking his knee and needing a substitution. If Garcia does play, he's looking like a player short of confidence right now. There's a lack of joy in his game at the moment, and Garcia is a player who really needs to be having fun to play well. At the moment, he looks pensive on the ball and unwilling to take risks. If he can play, United needs to be sure he doesn't gain any belief in the early going.
Since Garcia wasn't training on Monday, though, he's very much in question. Here are Coyle's other options:
- Leonel Miranda: The young Argentine is the most natural right winger available, but he wasn't chosen to replace Garcia despite being available off the bench last week.
- Alex Lopez: The Dynamo spent a lot of money on the young Honduran playmaker, and thus far they've been unable to figure out how to get him to adapt to MLS. He's a natural #10, but Coyle has said he wants to unlock Lopez's talent and used him to replace Garcia last week. It didn't really work, but it's possible that the idea is to give him a full week of training and a start with the idea of being a playmaking wide midfielder.
- Rob Lovejoy: A rookie, Lovejoy scored a fantastic goal to cap off the Dynamo's 3-0 win over an Impact side that was running on fumes. Coyle likes him, and it's easy to see why: He's a bundle of energy, and he has the belief to put defenders on the back foot. Still, he's played almost entirely on the left wing as a substitute thus far, and I think Coyle may want to keep him as the ace up his sleeve for the time being.
It's hard to say which player will get their shot, especially as Garcia has not been ruled out yet. I suppose it's also theoretically possible that Bruin could return up front so that Giles Barnes could shift over to the right wing, but that would be counterproductive.
Barnes may look almost comically isolated up front in the Dynamo's implementation of this system, but he's thriving nonetheless. Barnes has a little bit of everything about him: The speed to threaten over the top, the leaping ability to really challenge for headers, the quality on the dribble to beat defenders on his own, and he's a finisher too. Until Luis Silva enters the game, Barnes will be the best striker on the field. The newly-minted Jamaica national team attacker is going to test United's progress on playing against a lone striker, and anything less than last week's efforts against Bradley Wright-Phillips will not be good enough.
The trio of potential right midfield replacements are all players who will be considered when Coyle turns to his bench. Bruin could also come on, particularly if Houston falls behind. In that case, look for him to replace Sturgis or Garrido as Houston moves into a 442. Alex has only just joined the team and was previously questionable with a hamstring issue before leaving the Fire, so I'm not sure we'll see his debut tomorrow.
Check back tomorrow morning, when we'll have more in-depth coverage of how the Dynamo play.