The MLS schedule is quirky. There are a few reasons, but mostly it can be reduced to the fact that the league is split into two uneven conferences, a Western Conference with nine teams and an Eastern one with ten. Because of this, teams from opposing conferences only play once a season. And in a quirk, eight of the nine Western Conference matches the Houston Dynamo will play are grouped together. On Saturday, the Dynamo will play their fourth straight Western foe, traveling to the Pacific Northwest to face the Portland Timbers. I have a few reasons to believe that this could be a trap match, and I'll outline why below.
The Timbers currently sit seventh in the Western Conference table (sixteenth overall) and have managed only three points from an 0-1-3 record. That being said, I don't think that record is a perfect reflection of this team. They're a mostly young side with a new coach, and have enough talent to justify much higher aspirations.
The Dynamo, meanwhile, sit in second place in the East (fourth overall), and have grabbed 9 points already, thanks to a 3-1-0 start. They've shined in the last two weeks, dominating their opponents en route to wins against Vancouver and San Jose. The scorelines don't reflect the magnitude of their domination - especially last Saturday against San Jose. On paper, this looks to be an easy match, right? Wrong. I'm not just going to remind you of my mantra (there's no such thing as a given three points), I'm going to sit here and put forward some evidence as to why it won't be so.
The Dynamo's road trouble have been documented many times, most recently on this blog. Yes, the team has nine points in the league (and a CONCACAF Champions League victory), but they have those off of four matches at home. The team has played away from BBVA Compass Stadium twice so far, and neither performance was very inspiring. In both the CCL match against Santos Laguna in Torreón and the league clash in Frisco four days later, the bad defending and dearth of attack that had been evident in the first two home matches came back to hurt the Dynamo, as they gave up six goals and scored only two. While they showed heart in fighting back to level the match against Dallas as time was running out, poor defending (and a possible missed call) meant that points slipped away from the Dynamo.
That was almost three weeks ago, and since then, you've seen a different team. With Brad Davis, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Jermaine Taylor away on international duty and key acquisition Omar Cummings still easing back from injury, substitutes such as Andrew Driver, Eric Brunner (an offseason acquisition from the Timbers), Warren Creavalle and Giles Barnes led the Dynamo to a comeback victory against Vancouver. With the international players back in the fold the next week, the men in orange looked inspired and in control, notching 2-0 victory that probably should've been a lot more one-sided.
The Dynamo will look to bring that form with them to Portland, hoping to add to the Timbers' slow start to the season. They'll be facing a stern test from Jamaican keeper Donovan Ricketts and a Timbers side that has high aspirations. Will Johnson, Jack Jewsbury and Diego Valeri highlight a strong midfield, and even with the end of the Kris Boyd experiment, this is still a team that, on paper, should be dangerous.
The Dynamo can't sit on their laurels. Last week, they tied the MLS record for a home unbeaten streak across all competitions at 34, and on the 14th against Chicago, they'll go for a that record as well as a share of the regular season streak (they sit one behind Real Salt Lake's 29 straight regular season victories). This is a monuments achievement - the second longest such streak in American pro sports - but it has no bearing on this Saturday's match. Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear has downplayed the streak so far, and I believe he's right to do so. I'd love to get the record next week - but I also want points from this week, and focusing too much on the future could possible lead to no results here in the present.
Tactically, the Dynamo are in a good position. Cummings has been in the eighteen the last few matches, and should be nearing full fitness, if he hasn't done so yet. While it will certainly be nice to be able to go out in the 4-4-2 formation that Kinnear loves so much, the 4-2-3-1 has started to gain steam as Giles Barnes gains confidence in his role as a trequartista (I brought this up in an earlier Panic Button post, and the more I watch, the more I'm convinced that's what Barnes is functioning as). Cummings was brought in to play, not ride the bench - but with the current formation playing as it has the last two weeks, is there any player who would deserve being benched in favor of Omar Cummings and the 4-4-2? I have a hard time seeing it - and in all honesty, I think that's a good problem to have.
(Note: I wrote this before news broke that Will Bruin would be unavailable for Saturday's match. While missing your star striker is never a good thing, this does perhaps clear up some of the formation troubles I'd foreseen.)
I'll be honest, this match scares me a bit. Partly because of all the hoopla surrounding the Dynamo's home unbeaten streak, but also partly because people are saying this is going to be an easy match. I can sit back and call up several such "easy matches" from last year that they Dynamo lost or rallied late to salvage a draw. The Timbers are a cellar dweller, it's true, but it's still early in the season. They have plenty of time to turn this around, and it will be key that the Dynamo don't give them the opportunity to start doing so this Saturday. I think it'll be an entertaining match, and I hope that the Dynamo will do enough to secure a favorable result.