Some might claim that pre-match analysis is hardly rocket science, but anyone familiar with an inverted parabolic curve knows exactly how to plot the course the Houston Dynamo have taken thus far in the early stages of the 2013 season.
They opened with a regular season win over D.C. United, and were over the moon after their first-leg CCL win against Santos Laguna. But what goes up, must come down. And the Dynamo came back to earth hard after a 3-0 away drubbing in the second leg of their series with Laguna, ultimately crashing and burning last week when they dropped a 3-2 decision to Texas Derby rivals FC Dallas as the final seconds ticked away in Frisco.
Coach Dominic Kinnear has a tough enough task to turn things around for the Dynamo as it is. But compounding his troubles is the fact that he'll be missing three starters (midfielder and set-piece guy Brad Davis, anchor center back Jermaine Taylor, and midfielder Boniek Garcia) due to international duty callups.
And then there are the injuries: Calen Carr's out indefinitely with an ACL injury, and fellow forward Omar Cummings, picked up in December from Colorado, is questionable at best, as he is still recovering from knee surgery and only began serious training again this week.
Uncharacteristic defensive lapses have cost the Dynamo on a few occasions so far, and the absence of Taylor is a worry for the Orange. Either Eric Brunner (6'4") or second-year pro Warren Creavalle (6'0") are candidates to try to fill the void.
Houston has a well-deserved reputation for being deadly on their set pieces. But in a weird twist of fate, they gave up two markers last week while trying to defend set pieces.
The news isn't all bad for the Dynamo however. They're currently riding a 32-match home unbeaten streak, only two wins away from setting a new MLS record. They've still got CB Bobby Boswell, now in his 9th year in MLS, and Dynamo Defender of the Year last season, as well as in 2010 and 2008. And any team with Will Bruin up front is going to be a threat. Now in his third year in MLS, Bruin chalked up 12 regular season goals for the Dynamo last year.
Much of how the match plays out will depend on how Kinnear sets his side's priorities. He favoured a flat 4-4-2 through much of the 2012 campaign, interspersed with a 4-4-2 diamond. There was a three-month stretch of 4-3-3 through the summer and early fall, during which they only lost 2 matches.
Considering the Dynamo's recent defensive woes, and the speed of the Vancouver attack, I'd expect Kinnear to revert to a standard 4-4-2, particularly as he doesn't have the depth up front to play run 'n gun for the full 90 versus the Caps. He's got Brian Ching to call upon, but at 34 his best years are well behind him. Ching's played a total of 44 minutes in his two MLS matches this season.
Perhaps the greatest strength the Dynamo have is in their midfield. Depleted by two for the current international window, it still boasts DMs Adam Moffat, Giles Barnes, as well as Andrew Driver, on loan from Hearts in the SPL.
As far as the Whitecaps go, Martin Rennie appears to be an ardent proponent of the maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Aside from deciding who to slot in for Miller, the Caps will be looking at tactics more than anything - trying to improve on their lowly total of three road victories last season.
On the plus side of the ledger, Darren Mattocks is more of a threat on the road than at home, as he scored six in away matches, and only twice at home (two against Houston in the same match). Armband prediction: Nigel Reo-Coker.
We'll almost certainly see the 4-2-3-1, probably with Daigo Kobayashi in the hole behind Mattocks. The only real question will be does Camilo Sanvezzo finally get a start, or will it be the bigger, faster, stronger, younger, but wildly inexperienced Erik Hurtado? Camilo was nursing a minor thigh issue late in the week, but should be ready to play come kickoff. Saturday will tell.
My bet is that the Caps will look to take advantage of a makeshift lineup by continuing the high-possession ball control approach they used so effectively versus Columbus. There may be some early bunkering, but look for the Caps to employ sheer speed to pry open the Dynamo defenses on the counter.
Two very evenly matched sides will be looking to regain momentum. Who knows what's in the cards in this version of Texas Hold 'Em?
Finally a couple interesting little back notes:
- Dynamo mid Adam Moffat and Martin Rennie are no strangers. Rennie coached his countryman Moffat when they were together with the USL's Cleveland City Stars.
- Kekutah Manneh is making a homecoming of sorts. Manneh is a product of Texan youth soccer, having played for the Texas Rush (2010-2011), and Lonestar SC (2011-2012) as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and later played for the Austin Aztex in the Premier Development League.
- Continuing the Texas theme: Caps forward Omar Salgado was born in El Paso, Texas. Salgado made his pro debut on April 10, 2011. The opposition that day: Houston Dynamo.
- The Dynamo had to relinquish their cannon El Capitan after losing the Texas Derby to FC Dallas last week. The Caps have their Cannon in goal.