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D.C. United vs. Houston Dynamo: Dynamo projected lineup

The underrated Dynamo and Alberth Elis are a real threat for United

D.C. United finishes a brutal week of games by flying from Canada to Texas to face the Houston Dynamo. Somehow, despite the Dynamo being the third-best team in the league on a points-per-game basis (2.00 after 10 games, only behind Seattle and LAFC), Houston doesn’t get a ton of attention. They may not have the big names, but Wilmer Cabrera’s team doesn’t give up many goals at all, and has two of the best attackers in the entire league in Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas.

With Houston facing a similarly demanding week to the inexplicable three-games-in-six-days gauntlet United is enduring (the Dynamo had an extra day off between their first two games this week, and are at home again after Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Portland, but close enough), let’s get into the possible rotation involved in what will almost certainly be a typical Cabrera 4231:

Goalkeeper: Joe Willis
Our old pal “Angry Joe” Willis took over as Houston’s starter about 13 months ago, and hasn’t given Cabrera any reason to make a switch. Over the years, Willis has sharpened his game, but is still roughly the guy he was in D.C.: great on penalty kicks, confident in the air, quick off his line, occasionally beatable at the near post, and prone to taking a questionable angle to the ball.

Right back: AJ DeLaGarza, maybe?
DeLaGarza is first choice, but he’s played the full 90 twice this week. Under normal circumstances he’d be in line to start again, but Houston has options. Utility defender Kevin Garcia is probably the most likely option to step in, but Cabrera could also opt for Chris Duvall (who made the bench for the first time in a while on Wednesday night). DeLaGarza and Garcia don’t really overlap so much as offer a support option going forward, while the speedier Duvall can occasionally get down the touchline to cross.

Center back: Aljaz Struna
Struna, who is nicknamed “Kiki,” has experience in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League and was brought in as a TAM signing this season. There were suspicions that the Slovenian international might be a bit too slow and a bit too much of a hard man to thrive in MLS, but so far, he’s been pretty sturdy and hasn’t picked up a single card in league play.

Center back: Alejandro Fuenmayor
Maynor Figueroa is the normal starter, but was informed of his father’s passing moments after the Dynamo’s game on Wednesday ended. Understandably, that likely means Cabrera will turn elsewhere as the veteran Honduran mourns his loss. Most likely, the Dynamo will turn to the young Venezuelan, who hasn’t broken through yet with his national team. Fuenmayor has some good quickness and will bring a bit more in the air than Figueroa (the Dynamo are tied with Atlanta at the bottom of MLS’s aerials won table, so that’s a weakness team-wide), but he lacks the judgment that Figueroa brings to the table.

Cabrera could also go with Kevin Garcia, but in either case, it’s a spot United should probably target.

Left back: Adam Lundqvist or DaMarcus Beasley
Beasley is the starter, but only made his first start of the season on Wednesday night after arthroscopic surgery in March. Under normal circumstances, you’d expect a sure rotation, but if Beasley were a normal player he’d have retired by now. Lundqvist has been solid in DMB’s stead, and if they don’t want to push Beasley too hard too quickly, it’ll be the Swede starting tonight. Lundqvist doesn’t do anything that will catch the eye, but he’s been reliable and doesn’t get beaten too often.

Defensive midfield: Matias Vera, most likely
Vera was brought in as competition and/or cover for Juan David Cabezas, whose injury in 2018 derailed the Dynamo. Instead, Vera has taken over the no. 6 job, offering a combination of ball-winning (he averages 3.2 successful tackles per 90) and trustworthiness on the ball (pass accuracy of 91.2% on the season, which is 5th in MLS for players with over 500 minutes played).

Still, Cabezas is fit and available, and since Vera has played the full 90 twice this week, it would be pretty reasonable for Cabrera to opt to rotate here. Cabezas is good enough that most teams would use him as a full-time starter, though he might not be quite as tidy on the ball as Vera.

Central midfield: Oscar Boniek Garcia or Darwin Ceren
Garcia is one of the Dynamo’s numerous ageless wonders. The 34-year-old former winger has been playing centrally in the past two or three seasons, and Cabrera really likes him in this linking role. Garcia takes up good positions off the ball, and is really good at playing out of tight positions. He might not have the speed he used to, but he uses his high soccer IQ to make the players around him better without doing too much flashy himself.

Garcia played 90 minutes on Wednesday, though, so Ceren could cycle in. Ceren hasn’t quite been able to find a solid spot in MLS in recent years, as he’s not quite defensively sound enough to be a pure no. 6, yet also appears too defensively-oriented for how most teams want their no. 8 to play. Ceren will offer a more physical style if he starts.

Right wing: Alberth Elis
In a just world, Elis would be talked about as one of MLS’s top stars, but since he’s a Honduran playing in Houston rather than a European or Mexican star playing on the coasts, he remains underappreciated. Nonetheless, he is a nightmare to deal with, because he has everything: speed, technique, a good eye for where space will be, and physical strength.

The biggest worry with Elis is his ability to beat his man on the dribble (only Carlos Vela has more successful dribbles per 90 this year). On the plus side, Marquinhos Pedroso is plenty familiar with him from his time with Dallas.

Attacking midfield: Tomas Martinez, probably
Martinez is interesting, because he doesn’t really play like a traditional no. 10. He’s either the third or fourth man in this attack depending on the night, and his job is more to make sure the ball is getting to the wingers than it is to be a goal threat or the team’s chief set-up man. Still, Martinez is pretty good at this more peripheral role, and he’s a particular threat arriving late at the top of the box.

If Cabrera wants to rotate him out for a game, look for former United midfielder (on paper only) Tommy McNamara to get the nod instead. McNamara has lost some of the confidence that he had at NYCFC a couple of years ago, but he plays this role very similarly to Martinez so it’s not a big drop-off.

Left wing: Romell Quioto or Memo Rodriguez
Rodriguez, at long last, is having his breakout season four years after landing a homegrown contract. He has 4 goals and 2 assists on the season, and usually drifts inside to combine with Martinez to help Elis and Mauro Manotas do their thing. However, he’s also very good at making back post runs in the wake of Manotas, and that off-the-ball threat is what’s keeping him in the lineup over Quioto.

However, if Cabrera wants to add fresh legs to his attack, Quioto is probably the first option he’d turn to. The Honduran international is faster and more direct than Rodriguez, which when you’ve already got Elis on the other flank can be a real problem.

Striker: Mauro Manotas
Manotas is a real triumph for the Dynamo, as they picked him up at 19 years old to be a back-up for Cubo Torres. Since then, Manotas played well enough to make Torres expendable, and the young Colombian has 41 goals in 107 MLS regular season appearances (including 19 last year).

Manotas doesn’t have any particularly jaw-dropping athletic gifts. Instead, he’s just tremendous off the ball, and quick enough to keep up with Elis when the break is on. When the Dynamo aren’t playing on the counter, his clever runs through the channels set up plenty of through ball opportunities, and he generally gives himself good looks at goal every week.

Impact substitutes:
This is something of an issue for the Dynamo, because they’re a bit thin overall. Ronaldo Peña, a TAM striker they brought in last summer, has been injured for a while, and winger/fullback Marlon Hairston is questionable with a hip injury. Rodriguez or Quioto will be potent additions, and McNamara seems to play the final 15-20 minutes of every game no matter what, but there aren’t any game-changers past them.

Tactical variations:
Not too many. While this year’s Dynamo are better at being a possession team than last year’s, they’re still at heart a counter-attacking team. That said, with short rest, a tired opponent, and typical Texas weather (80, humid, possible storms) in the forecast, look for them to at least give the possession approach a shot.