For a team hoping to dig out from under a hideous week, heading to Houston is about the last thing they want to see as the next match on the calendar, but for DC United it even more ominous as Robertson stadium is the only venue where DC has never won, aside from the expansion stadia they yet to visit of course.
Well, it doesn’t get much more daunting than this for United. Coming off a brutal home loss to hated rival Red Bull, and perhaps an even more painful loss to the hated Revs that bounced them from the Open Cup, DC now travels to Houston where they have never won, have barely ever even scored there since the Dynamo were created in 2006.
0-4-1 over the last five years, 3 goals scored (all in one loss in 2009, the tie was 0-0 in 2008) and 9 goals against, 0-5-1 if you count a 1-0 Superliga loss there too. That’s United’s record in Robertson stadium. Not a pretty picture. Add in that Houston, while no longer the MLS powerhouse they were, is still a Kinnear coached team that is organized, plays with discipline and is currently on a five game unbeaten streak, while United is young and has spent the past week being humbled by its betters and is facing a stretch of 3 games in 9 days all against tough opponents. So, it could easily be a nightmare scenario for United.
One thing that could be in United’s favor is they are getting healthier, a certain young Honduran seems to be returning to form, and their unspectacular (to date) DP might be showing signs that he is ready to actually contribute in MLS, at least if the damage NE inflicted upon him continues to heal well and he gets some quality minutes in Houston.
First and foremost, word is that Jed Zayner is back to full fitness and might start in Houston. If that is so, it is a huge relief in that it would put the woefully inadequate Marc Burch back on the bench where he belongs and should help tighten up a suddenly porous DC defense. Possibly Olsen has drank the cool-aid and will sit rookie Chris Korb instead, but Korb has been a bright spot and certainly has a heck of a lot more upside than Burch.
Also, Andy Najar seems to have put his personal problems aside and gotten back to focusing on soccer as his play in the Open Cup can attest. Both against Philly and NE he was very bright in the attack and pretty much his old feisty self contesting balls in midfield. And, it seems news of DP Branko Boskovic’s broken leg was a bit premature. All NE managed was a bone bruise apparently. No doubt Nicol will fine Koger for his lackadaisical tackle there. Still, while Pub Crawl (he hits every bar!) may not start, word is the Montenegrin Magician should be available for some serious minutes.
So, all that in mind, I would imagine Olsen goes with his absolute best in Houston, expecting to mix in reserves for the home matches coming up against a Zakuani-less Seattle and a Ferreira-less FCD next week.
I would expect Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff to start at forward; Chris Pontius, Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar to start across the midfield left to right, with Boskovic coming off the bench first if the game is close. In defense, it has to be Zayner, Perry Kitchen, Dejan Jakovic, and Chris Korb. If it isn’t, then it better be because Jakovic is sat so that Ethan White can block a few more shots off the goal line. Certainly Bill Hamid will be in goal, so former Houston keeper Pat Onstad, who will be honored by the Dynamo after the game, won’t be playing against his old team unless Hamid comes up lame, soccer gods forbid.
Houston is on a five game unbeaten streak and has started the same lineup the past three games, including coming off a tie at Chicago last week, so it will be a shock if Kinnear changes anything even though they did sign 28 year old Spanish midfielder Koke this week and he is expected to be available. So that means Cam Weaver and Wil Bruin at forward; Brad Davis, Geoff Cameron, Lovel Palmer, and Danny Cruz in midfield going left to right. In defense, it will be Hunter Freeman, former DC defender Bobby Boswell, Andrew Hainault, and converted midfielder Corey Ashe across the backline going right to left, with Onstad understudy Tally Hall (HO!) in goal.
Now looking at the matchups, DC does have some positives. Bruin and Weaver are not particularly frightening except on Halloween, so Jakovic and Kitchen can certainly blank them, especially if they avoid the horrendous mistakes we’ve been seeing lately and the midfield starves the Houston target forwards of the ball. Now, Houston talisman Brian Ching will come off the bench second half no doubt, and he’s a handful for any defense in the league, but hopefully, the game is decided before that point.
Also, Cruz is a lively attacker, but Zayner should have no problems with him, heck even Burch might manage to contain him. Plus, McCarty and Simms should be fine against Cameron and Palmer. The only really bad matchups are Brad Davis against the rookie Korb, but Najar has been a tenacious defender in the past and could help Korb tremendously. Then, on the other side Freeman is a threat on overlaps and Pontius is not exactly the best wing defender in the world. Once Kinnear puts in Colin Clark for Cruz, DC could be in serious trouble down that side, but again hopefully it’s too little too late.
Managing fouls will be crucial in this match however. Brad Davis is as good as it gets in MLS, and most of Houston’s offense is generated by his free kicks and corner kicks. 5 of their 7 goals this year are off dead ball situations and Davis is second in the league with 4 assists so far. If DC is sloppy and fouls too much around their own area, Houston will score buckets simple as that, unless DC’s defense suddenly discovers how to mark the back post, that is. But, given DC’s dead ball defense to date, that seems a bit unlikely, so they better avoid fouls in bad spots and had better kick the ball to the sidelines or they will be in a world of trouble.
As for going forward, Houston’s soft spot is right down the middle of the defense. Boswell and Hainault could easily be exposed by the speed and cleverness of Davies and Wolff. Houston had a hideous defense last year, and most of them are still starting this year, so they can be rocked even though they have tightened up a bit this year so far. Also, Najar (or even Fred, who is the only current United player to have ever actually scored in Houston) going at Ashe is a clear winner for DC.
So, DC can certainly score. Granted the only time they ever did down there was trying to come back from 3 goals down in a game they would eventually lose 4-3, but hey, it can happen. Houston is only 1-2 at home this year losing to Philly on opening day and has beaten expansion Vancouver and a Shalrie Joseph-less NE a couple weeks ago. This is also DC’s last shot at winning in Robertson Stadium as Houston is in the process of building a new stadium for next year, so they need to pull something out of their hat as I don’t believe there’s ever been any venue in MLS history where DC has never won at least one game.
Obviously, the past trends do not favor DC, nor does the current form favor DC either, clearly. But, this is a crucial match for a possibly fragile young DC United team. A point would be huge, and a win would be a hallelujah moment, even a hard fought loss could be swallowed, but if United gets blasted by a couple or more goals with the spectre of last year’s futility still very fresh in their minds, and have to come home to face a Seattle squad that has never lost in RFK, followed up quickly by MLS Cup finalists FCD in a little over a week, and all of a sudden DC could be in a death spiral heading into the summer.
No predictions. Fingers crossed DC finds a way to get at least a point.