Tonight, D.C. United will be facing a Houston Dynamo side that looks a lot different than they have for most of the season. That's not really a surprise, given that the Dynamo have been sitting somewhere in MLS's bottom three for much of the year; it was time for a change. Owen Coyle made it easy on Houston, as he somehow walked straight into a new job despite his problems in MLS, and assistant coach Wade Barrett has stepped into the void.
Barrett played most of his pro career under Dominic Kinnear, and that has shown through in his lineup choices since taking over as the Dynamo's interim head coach. Houston was giving up way too many goals to have a chance of being a successful team, so Barrett's first order of business was to strengthen his team's defensive spine. The 4231 has been scrapped for a 4141, while players who don't work defensively (Cristian Maidana, for example) have been dropped. The emphasis has been on stopping the bleeding by any means necessary.
To Barrett's credit, the early signs have been decent. The Dynamo have played two games since making the switch, and both were 1-1 road draws. They may owe a ridiculous downpour in Dallas some credit for one of those, but when you're in last place in your conference, results are results. Dynamo fans may eventually start asking for a bit more in the style department, but right now they're probably just glad to not be on a losing streak.
Here's how that new look will, er, look:
In goal, Tyler Deric has held onto the job despite Joe Willis making a challenge for the role. Deric has missed time due to injuries, and has also picked up two red cards this season, but when he's been fit and available he's gotten the call. Those red cards are an indicator of one of Deric's issues: his decision-making coming off his line can be pretty questionable. There are times where he's too rash - hence the red cards - while there are also times that he stays home when he shouldn't.
On the right, Jalil Anibaba and Sheanon Williams have been battling for the starting job for much of the season. Barrett has given each player one start during his tenure, but with Williams playing the full 90 in Wednesday's 4-0 win over San Antonio FC, I think the edge probably goes to Anibaba here. Both players are willing to get forward, though Williams is more dangerous in those situations. Anibaba, meanwhile, brings more physical strength and probably takes fewer risks in possession.
Central defense has been a weak spot all season, and Barrett's formation change is likely based around hiding that flaw. David Horst has mostly hung onto the starting job this season despite Coyle acquiring Spanish defender Agus to compete for the job. Horst is a very old-school defender who plays physically, is great in the air, and treats the ball like a ticking time bomb. He also has big problems in terms of lateral quickness and agility, so United should be looking for any opportunity to get someone dribbling at him or making a hard run in behind.
Next to Horst, we should see Raul Rodriguez rather than Agus, who has failed to convince. Rodriguez can at times look pretty smart as a center back, but there always seems to be a moment of ball-watching or simply losing his mark on the turn mixed in. Both he and Horst are big threats on set pieces, though, and the Dynamo scored two of their four goals in their Open Cup win from such situations.
DaMarcus Beasley is unquestionably the starter at left back, and he's likely been the team MVP this season. He may have lost a step from his days as a winger, but that still leaves him as a pretty fast player. On top of that, Beasley's intelligence on the field and his underrated balance make him very difficult to beat 1v1. United also needs to watch out for his overlapping runs, as Barrett's 4141 uses them to allow the left winger to join the striker up front once the attack gets going. If Beasley is contained, the Dynamo will be far more predictable as a group.
The move to a more cautious approach is underlined by Collen Warner's presence in central midfield. Under Coyle, Warner didn't see much time, and Houston paired Ricardo Clark and Alex as their defensive midfielders. This was ludicrous, as no one held the middle. Clark covers a ton of ground as always, while Alex tends to drift forward in an effort to be a passing metronome. The Dynamo were the easiest team to attack down the middle in all of MLS as a result.
Warner has come in to change that. He's not a potential all-star or one of those defensive midfielders that national MLS observers will write entire articles about, but he embraces the fact that his role is to make it difficult to play between the lines for Houston's opponents, and when the Dynamo have the ball he's as unfussy as he possibly can be. If there's an issue in Warner's game, though, it's a tendency to pick up avoidable yellow cards by going into tackles recklessly.
Ahead of him will be Clark and Alex, who we already discussed. United will want to make sure they're pressuring Alex in an effort to disrupt Houston's attempts at possession. If Alex needs a rest after playing 90 minutes in the Open Cup, he'll probably be replaced by Oscar Boniek Garcia. Garcia is a natural winger, but since an electric first season in MLS he's been strangely muted. In 2016, both Coyle and Barrett have used him in the middle at times, where his quick feet do help Houston keep the ball even under pressure.
Clark, meanwhile, is doing what he's always done. He'll rove around the midfield looking to win the ball, and you won't see him shy away from physical play. He's also still got that powerful shot from the top of the box:
On the right wing, Andrew Wenger has held down the job all season. Wenger has been the butt of jokes in some places (including here) for moments like this, but in 2016 he has been pretty good. The goals and assists have dried up - he's got 1 goal and 0 assists in his last 12 games, and the goal was 5 games ago - but he's still not making the mistakes he used to in the past. Wenger is a tough match-up for Taylor Kemp, because he's got a target forward's build while having underrated speed. United should be prepared to see Houston aim plenty of left-sided crosses at the back post.
Giles Barnes is likely to get the start on the left after spending the last month or so with the Jamaican national team. Barnes, as Houston's only player capable of being a goal threat and a creator all at once, is the Dynamo's most dangerous player. The Black-and-Red need to shuttle him wide and force him to stay out there, as this will make Houston's attack far more predictable. When play shifts elsewhere, Sean Franklin and Kofi Opare will have to be particularly alert to his off-the-ball movements.
Up front, notorious United killer Will Bruin will get the start. On one hand, it's a good time to face Bruin, who hasn't scored or assisted on a goal in his last ten appearances. On the other hand, every DC fan reading this will fully expect Bruin to score a goal tonight because history has taught us that Will Bruin scoring on D.C. United is about as reliable as gravity keeping us tethered to the planet. Bruin will never stop working, and he'll also look to hold play up so Barnes and Wenger can join the attack. If United can disrupt things in those moments, they'll likely be able to break up a lot of Houston attacks.
Off the bench, the Dynamo will not have Erick Torres to call on. The Mexican Designated Player, who Coyle apparently had no interest in playing, is fighting for a spot on Mexico's Olympic team. If Houston needs a forward, they'll have to turn to Mauro Manotas. The 20 year old Colombian is a good finisher, and he may be growing in confidence as Houston has started giving him 25+ minutes to make a difference in the past month (as opposed to last year's cameo appearances).
In the midfield, Garcia will sub in if he's not a starter, and he'd most likely come on for either Alex or one of the wingers. The Dynamo's other wide option is Leonel Miranda, a 22 year old Argentine who has shown some real flashes of invention near the top of the box. Miranda's weakness right now is making a difference in all phases of the game, but as an attacking sub his movement and dribbling ability can change games. Finally, Maidana will probably sub in, and while he can be hassled into anonymity during open play, his set piece delivery will still make him a constant threat.