D.C. United has faced two teams with significant variables thus far in 2018, but their third game will be more straightforward. There is plenty of preseason footage of the Houston Dynamo, who have made no major changes to a team that went to the Western Conference final last year. There are no looming suspensions, and while they don’t have a completely clean bill of health, the replacements for those injured players are fairly obvious.
Wilmer Cabrera has kept his team in a 4231 since acquiring Argentine playmaker Tomas Martinez last year. Houston’s formation tends towards a more rigid, defined shape, with Martinez preferring to stay central and two holding midfielders resolutely staying home most of the time. The idea is to maintain a mostly predictable platform for Alberth Elis, who despite largely playing as a right winger does have freedom to roam.
Starting in the back, Chris Seitz is one of their few offseason pick-ups. With Tyler Deric indefinitely suspended (but curiously still on the roster despite domestic violence charges), Cabrera held a competition between Seitz and former United favorite Joe Willis. Seitz won out, and is a solid if unspectacular option in goal. United will want to follow up on shots though, as Seitz has sometimes tended towards letting up rebounds and loose balls that he should avoid.
The ageless wonder DaMarcus Beasley is captaining the side at left back. While it’s possible that Dylan Remick cycles in on the occasional road trip to keep Beasley fresh for the stretch run, we’re still only in March. Look for Beasley to get the start, and he’s still really solid defensively while maintaining a threat going forward. Ignore the fact that his 36th birthday is coming up (I feel your pain on that front, DaMarcus); he’s still one of the best in MLS at his position.
Houston’s main injury issue crops up at center back, where Philippe Senderos was removed at halftime last week due to a hamstring issue. Whether he’s fit to play appears to be an open question. Given that this is a road game, I’m leaning towards no, which would mean a starting role for Adolfo Machado (who last week was used as a right back due in part to Vancouver’s aerial threat). If Machado joins Leonardo — who quietly improved in 2017 after being a bit of a laughingstock during his time with the Galaxy — at center back, Kevin Garcia will come in at right back. Garcia may also start even if Senderos returns, as Machado is not the most natural option out wide.
Houston’s other injury absence is Juan Cabezas, and that situation is more clear. This game is a week or two too early for the Colombian to return, so Eric Alexander will be partnered by Darwin Ceren. The partnership will work just like it does with Cabezas fit: Alexander will be the tempo-setter that the Dynamo trusts on the ball, while Ceren’s job will bring the edge to the midfield as a ball-winner. D.C. needs to make sure they’re in Alexander’s face whenever he receives the ball, as his play tends to be an indicator of how well or poorly the Dynamo are doing.
Martinez has an impressive CV, including minutes as a teenager on a River Plate side that won the 2014 Copa Sudamericana. However, he’s a bit unusual in MLS in that he’s a #10 who isn’t really a flashy passer, or a goal threat, or a Luciano Acosta-style dribbling threat. Martinez plays a refined game, but he’s only produced 2 goals and 2 assists in 988 career MLS minutes (regular season and playoffs). Houston’s attack does look better when he gets the ball at his feet in dangerous spots, but he’s ultimately an accessory rather than the star of the show here.
The straw that stirs the drink for Houston is undoubtedly Elis, their electric right winger. The Honduran started the season off superbly, torching anyone in his path in Houston’s season-opening rout of Atlanta. The Whitecaps learned the lesson last week, largely opting to contain Elis, prevent him from attacking the goal on the dribble, and making him into more of a set-up man. United should adopt this plan, because if Elis is given the chance to get out and run, he can single-handedly turn a game.
On the left side, Andrew Wenger has surprisingly been preferred to Romell Quioto, who is apparently less than 100% fit. Wenger, despite the jokes at his expense around MLS, understands his role here: always be an option, be physical, and make the back-post runs that tend to open up with Elis dragging so much attention to the opposite side. However, Quioto’s speed and finishing make him the bigger threat, and he played 35 minutes last week against Vancouver. If he can get to 60 minutes this week, Cabrera may well bring the former CD Olimpia man back into the fold.
Cabrera didn’t seem happy with his attack last week, repeatedly gesturing and eventually removing Mauro Manotas after 55 minutes before using his final sub to swap Martinez out for Arturo Alvarez in the 68th minute. Bringing Quioto in as a forward could be an option, but more likely, if Manotas is going to be dropped, we could see Elis moved up top (as was the case against Vancouver). In that scenario, Wenger would move to the right, with Quioto coming in on the left side. Alvarez, despite a long history as an inverted winger, may be seen by Cabrera as more of a #10 than a wide option, so if Houston sees Martinez as the issue, Alvarez will probably be their solution.
From the bench, and assuming they aren’t rotated in, Quioto and Alvarez appear to be Cabrera’s clear top two substitute options. The Dynamo aren’t a very deep team going forward, with Manotas the only natural striker likely to make the gameday 18. However, they do have options like veteran Oscar Boniek Garcia (these days more of a central option) and youngster Memo Rodriguez, who could come in wide left if the Dynamo decide to try Quioto up top.