Fresh off giving up another late goal to NY, DC United hosts a team they are not sad at all to only play once a year in the Houston Dynamo at RFK tomorrow night.
A thorn in their side ever since their inception in 2006, DC is definitely not sorry to see Houston moved to Western Conference this year meaning they now only face each other once a year. Nice for this one to be in RFK to boot as DC won in Houston for only the first time ever last year. Since their inception in 2006, Houston’s ascendency has roughly mirrored United’s demise. Aside from last year’s glimmer of possibility, United’s last run of league success was back to back Supporter’s Shield’s in ’06 and ’07, but Houston won the MLS Cups both of those years, and knocked DC from the playoffs in 2012 enroute to the Dynamo’s fourth trip to the MLS Cup final in six years as DC wallowed.
However, defending Eastern Conference champion United sits at 3-1-1 riding a three game unbeaten streak and hasn’t lost at home in their last 14 matches, but suffice it say it hasn’t all been rosy in RFK of late despite the results. DC defeated a listless Montreal and a depleted Galaxy with pretty unconvincing play and somewhat miraculous 1-0 scorelines, then looked good going 2-0 up on NY before Olsen got outcoached allowing NY to come back and tie it up 2-2 after being over matched in NY losing that one handily 0-2. Still, DC is leading the East while Houston is barely hanging on to sixth in the West at 2-2-2.
Both teams have shown the ability to keep it tight in the back, but also a pretty shaky touch in front of goal. Houston’s defense has been absolutely stunning however. Outside of an own goal, they have only allowed defending league MVP Robbie Keane and MVP runner up Obafemi Martin to notch one goal each against them in 6 games. A year removed from their worst defensive performance ever, Houston appears to have re-discovered how to lock it down under new coach Owen Coyle.
A big key for both has been the play of their goalkeepers. United pretty much relies on Hamid and hope, but Houston is absolutely beholding to Deric and the dominoes falling their way. Tyler Deric has been sick this season with save of the week three weeks running at one point, highest save percentage in the league at 91.3 (for you hockey fans tuning in because of Caps angst) and .5 goals against average that would be even better than that if he hadn’t sportingly slapped one into his own net to throw a bone to the other net-minders in the league.
A former forward himself, Coyle has shown no inclination to jazz up Houston’s offense, perhaps merely waiting out the arrival of Cubo Torres, preferring instead to park the bus playing essentially a 4-6-0 and rely on set pieces and the odd mistake for offense. Not too dissimilar to United’s approach under Olsen I might add. Doesn’t exactly make for a mouth-watering matchup in RFK for sure, but both teams do have an ace or two in their sleeve. Giles Barnes, who has 3 goals in his last 5 games against DC and the winner last week against Montreal, has been the point of the spear for Houston as Ramblin’ Ray would say, and they have a trump card in Will Bruin who has killed United with 9 of his 35 career goals coming against DC. United on the other hand has last year’s second leading scorer Luis Silva virtually all the way back to starting and both Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius who were a big part of DC’s sweep of Houston last season.
Looking at the lineups is a bit tricky. Silva should be ready to start and go 60, but Houston is so good defensively, it might be better to go with Silva off the bench against a tired defense and keep the continuity the team has built over the first 5 games. Also, Nick DeLeon has been an Olsen favorite and he might be back from his hamstring troubles, but Michael Farfan was a more than solid replacement. He doesn’t have the flashes of brilliance, but Farfan does bring intelligence, more defensive effectiveness, and a heck of a lot less turnovers. In my opinion, Farfan should start and DeLeon settle into his likely career role as a spark off the bench. Houston has a couple likely out as well, Oscar Boniek-Garcia with a balky knee from the Montreal win and probably new defender Raul Rodriguez who got clocked in the head by Deric in the Seattle loss a couple weeks ago.
So, considering the styles of play and looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen goes with Pontius, Arrieta, Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Farfan across the midfield from left to right. Then Taylor Kemp, Kofi Opare, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin going from left to right in front of Bill Hamid. Houston will almost certainly go with Barnes as their only “forward” with Brad Davis, Nathan Sturgis, and Rob Lovejoy, who had a goal and assist in the dismantling of Montreal last week, in front of hard men Luis Garrido and Ricardo Clark sweeping up in front of a back four of the ageless DaMarcus Beasly, David Horst, Jermaine Taylor, and Kofi Sarkodie going left to right in front of Deric.
Looking at the matchups is a bit deceiving, of far more importance is how United handles that amorphous attack coming from Davis, Sturgis, and Lovejoy in support of Barnes. DC had serious trouble with a similar overload in central attack in NY and lost handily. Olsen compensated to take the 2-0 lead against NY last game, but it took NY coach Jesse March 45 minutes to realize he could pull Dax McCarty, the hero in the first NY game, and change his tactics to a 4-3-3 and pretty much dominate the rest of the way, and Olsen’s answer was Conor Doyle and grasping at straws as NY stormed back to tie. It’s true I am hard on Olsen, but the defending coach of the year is getting outsmarted pretty regularly and always seems to be a game behind in the evolution of his thinking.
Starting Farfan was huge in terms of allowing Kitchen and Arnaud to stay connected in midfield and stifling NY at first, and it should work against Houston too. Farfan will go a long way to handling Davis especially as long as DC stays away from too many FK’s allowing Kitchen and Arnaud to throttle the center of the field defensively and even get forward turning Houston’s strength against them as their attackers will have to defend more than they’d like. Kemp also showed remarkable improvement in his defense against NY so he should be able to contain Lovejoy well enough leaving Boswell and Barnes to trade off on chasing Barnes and Ricardo Clark coming from making the run from a deep position.
However, if Coyle is any kind of fantasy fan, he knows the rule of thumb is to have Bruin on your team whenever he plays DC. When he brings in the Bear to shift more towards a true 4-5-1 with a center forward how DC handle’s that is the question. Boswell is key here. How he communicates with Opare is crucial to keeping DC’s lines intact and connected. If DC gets pulled apart by width, Bruin will have room and could cause havoc.
In the attack, DC simply has to get balls into the box from Rolfe, Kemp and god willing Franklin from wide play, as well as the odd ball over the top to Arrieta and Pontius behind Taylor and Horst. They will find no joy attacking down the center against Garrido and Clark. Their only chance down the middle is when those teeth-rattlers give up a freekick and sorry to say, but outside of a Silva being gifted a hideous wall, DC’s freekick plays have been abysmal. Barely even going forward much less being threatening. Crosses won’t work either, but they should at least open space in the middle for DC to quick pass into a chance here and there. Hopefully they put one in as Houston won’t give up much.
Looking at the intangibles, DC is coming off a home tie that should feel like a loss and Houston of a rousing home win. Interestingly, both teams have faced Montreal going paws up after an emotional midweek CCL travel game, but Houston won easily, while DC barely scraped by the Impact. DC is 2-0-1 at home and Houston is 0-1-1 on the road albeit against LA and Seattle. Overall records head to head show Houston up handily 13-6-2 against United outscoring DC 37-21 all time, but DC has managed a slight advantage at RFK going 5-4-1, albeit grimly outscored 14-16 by the Orange Crush in RFK. But DC did win the last one in DC against the Dynamo 2-0 as long as you studiously forget the 0-4 and 1-2 losses in the previous two at RFK.
On paper, this match has all the makings of a 0-0 snoozer, maybe 1-0 zero either way depending on a mistake or a brilliant play here or there. I think a tie is most likely but barring something surreal, it will ultimately come down to Hamid or Deric outplaying the other.