When DC United arrive to play the Houston Dynamo on Sunday, it will be worlds away from the two teams' August 3rd meeting. That evening came with the debuts of Houston's big signings this year, DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido, on the heels of an eight game stretch that yielded just two points. DC entered after an historic turnaround from a record-setting last place squad in 2013. While Houston was capable of carving through United that night, both teams will be trotting out new-look lineups this Sunday afternoon at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Since August 3rd, the Dynamo have finally found consistency in their performances, tying with Columbus and New York for 4th best record in MLS (6-3-2) and recording five shutouts in the process. DC United has gone on to play a grueling 13 matches over the last two months, logging nearly 20,000 miles in travel for MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play. With a stretch of average performances, DC United finally is catching their breath and, not content with being the only clinched playoff team in the East, is aiming for the No. 1 seed as well.
But it won't be easy. United have only recorded a single road victory since July and Houston's last home loss stretches back to June 6th against Sporting Kansas City. Both teams will be entering the match with alterations to their lineups and Houston, after a gritty win in Toronto, needs the three home points to make the playoffs.
For DC United, forwards Fabian Espindola and Chris Pontius will likely make starts. Espindola (who was previously out with injury in Houston) has returned and, despite only scoring two goals since, is still regarded as a dangerous threat up top. Joining him should be Pontius who saw his first start last weekend against SKC. Plagued with hamstring setbacks and surgeries, Pontius is still settling into a squad that has made strides without his presence. With this duo, it's likely to be Espindola that will need the coverage while Pontius still attempts to find his footing.
The midfield still boasts the bulldog talent of MLS vet Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen on the wing, but has had to reshuffle on the left thanks to Chris Rolfe's broken arm. Rolfe, who has been deadly this year for DC, will surely be a loss to the United attack and his absence opens up an unstable left midfield that should be a focus of Houston's right wing attack.
Houston veteran Bobby Boswell is having a career-year for DC United and teammates have lauded his leadership and organization of the defense all season. BoBo's work with rookie centerback Steve Birnbaum has helped solidify a stingy defense that has given up just 34 goals this year. Sean Franklin has been more-or-less consistent along the backline and its likely that he'll be posted as rightback on Sunday.
DC's defense, while certainly among the top in the league, is definitely vulnerable and the Dynamo attack at home has answered a tougher challenge before. However, Houston forwards don't typically see a goalkeeper like Bill Hamid behind the backline. Hamid has recorded a career-high 102 saves, is tied for first in shutouts (10), and leads MLS in save percentage (about 75%). He is having a massive year and that has earned a USMNT call-up to last night's Landon Donovan farewell extravaganza. While he didn't play, Hamid will fly down to Houston and be available to play Sunday afternoon. That should serve as an imposing obstacle to scoring, as was seen in August when the Dynamo required a stoppage-time Will Bruin goal following one of Hamid's classic performances.
The Dynamo will need to exhibit lineup creativity yet again and it appears Dom Kinnear may have found a great look in the 4-3-3 formation that played so impressively in Toronto on Wednesday. Bruin, who seems to have a knack for scoring on DCU, was available on the bench that night and may see minutes come Sunday. Andrew Driver, slotting in for Boniek Garcia had perhaps his best game of the year and Servando Carrasco very ably commanded the center of the pitch in place of Luis Garrido. With the Hondurans still away on international duty, those two will likely be called upon again.
Without question, Tyler Deric has proved himself in the net and his performance against Jermaine Defoe and Toronto will go down in Houston legend should the Dynamo reach the playoffs. Hoping to make his job on Sunday slightly easier will be the Dynamo defense and Dom will need to dig into possibly the third string to replace replacement centerback AJ Cochran after his controversial red card on Wednesday. Jermaine Taylor will, however, return to the team in time for Sunday's fixture though it isn't likely that he'll be reclaiming his starting position right away (Taylor played a full 90-minutes in Japan on Thursday). That will leave the centerback position probable to fall to Eric Brunner. Fighting back from a preseason leg injury, Brunner has seen scattered minutes for the Dynamo and his unfamiliarity playing with Horst as a tandem may be a liability for the Dynamo against the top Eastern team.
As the Dynamo enter the final three matches of the year, wins from each of them is paramount to make the playoffs. DC, with a comfortable lead on first, may not have the urgency in this match as they gear up for the post-season but the Dynamo need to repeat their road performance for the home fans on Sunday afternoon. Those are the fans, by the way, that still dream, scream, and believe for the men in Orange.
Houston hosts Eastern Conference leaders DC United at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday, October 12th at 2:00PM. Tickets are still available here and the match can be seen on CSN Houston.