Just over two weeks ago, the Dynamo were searching for hope. There were new signings and convincing home victories but still just a lone road victory from early in the season. This squad, sensing the desperation in the standings, flew to Columbus aiming to hit their stride and bring home a result. Instead, Justin Meram exploited a checked-out David Horst in defense, notching a goal and assist, before Columbus piled a third and final tally on a dispirited and lackluster team.
Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium is Houston's last opportunity of the season to post a win on Columbus who are in direct contention for the final playoff position. Both teams come into the match riding identical records in their last seven (4-1-2) and Houston has found three victories in their previous four matches -- the only blemish being the 3-0 loss against Columbus on August 23rd.
After the 3-2 comeback win against Montreal, Houston has finally claimed the 8th position in the East with 31 points. Chicago, who sits a couple points behind, will likely give the Dynamo some breathing room as they announced that playmaker Mike Magee will sit out the remainder of the year after a recent surgery. Ahead, Houston looks to compete with Toronto (the 7th place team plays in Chicago this week), Philadelphia and Columbus (both teams sit tied for fifth with 36 points).
In recent weeks, the Dynamo have not been dealt many favors with Eastern rivals performing well enough to keep distance in the playoff race. Because of this, the Dynamo have begun to enter into must-win territory and hope for more favorable results from other teams to boost their chances of a post-season.
Columbus has been primed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, thanks to the offensive production of Federico Higuain and Justin Meram, the latter of which notched 2 goals in a 3-0 victory over Chivas last week. In that game, Columbus displayed an impressive flurry of offense, posting 17 shots and 30 crosses while allowing minimal chances from Chivas. Doing so without Toni Tchani and Will Trapp (the midfield duo was suspended for yellow card accumulation but expected to return versus Houston) was an imposing show of depth.
In addition, the Crew's stellar play has been without Giancarlo Gonzalez. The breakout Costa Rican defender first went missing during the Houston match two weeks ago while finalizing a transfer to Italian club Palermo. Since then, the Crew have continued their standard play with only a 2-0 loss to Montreal serving as a stutter. That game, as we covered briefly last week, showed weakness in Columbus' ability to cover a counter attack and that Federico Higuain, for all his masterful offense, could be contained.
The Dynamo defense should see familiar faces back in the lineup as compared to last week's makeshift defensive line. DaMarcus Beasley, who missed the last Columbus matchup with a tweaked hamstring, should impose himself along with Kofi Sarkodie (returning from yellow card suspension) on the wings. Coaching staff remain hopeful that Jermaine Taylor, who missed last game with a concussion, might see a return which could provide relief for David Horst in the center of defense [UPDATE: Jermaine Taylor and Will Bruin are confirmed out. AJ Cochran likely to take center back duties again].
As we saw against Montreal, Horst has a tendency to be caught flat-footed on the counter attack while covering space for defenders pushing forward. Luis Garrido will be needed to snuff out the counter and prevent the crafty Higuain from getting behind the defense. La Fiera should be up for the challenge, however. Since his debut on August 4th, Garrido leads the league in tackles (28) and is second in total duels won (first place, by the way, belongs to Oscar Boniek Garcia). Since the match in Columbus, Garrido has been able to truly solidify his presence in the midfield and should prove beastly against Higuain.
Where Horst has found comfort recently is in the trademark Dynamo set pieces. Adding a goal and assist in the last two games, Horst has finally began utilizing his height and muscle. Ricardo Clark, for his own efforts, has scored twice from set pieces and Giles Barnes recorded a brace last week against Montreal. Barnes has proven a huge component of the Dynamo offense, creating problems for defenses and showing a much improved finishing ability from earlier in the year. Per usual, Brad Davis has been quietly recording assists. Notching his third in the last two games, Davis has matched his 2013 total of nine with eight games to go.
Barnes' striking partner is still up in the air, however. Omar Cummings proved very capable last weekend against Montreal, tormenting the backline with darting, unpredictable runs and great combination play with Barnes. Will Bruin, who has been out with a leg sprain, will remain injured for another match so we should be able to see how Cummings and Barnes can test the Columbus backline again.
Facing the dwindling last games of the season is a lesson in adversity for the Dynamo. Overcoming a 2-1 deficit last weekend was a classic Dynamo display of steely nerve in the face of a challenge. Whereas earlier in the year (or, even two weeks ago against Columbus), going down a goal might have meant an early end to the match, the Dynamo look poised to do what they can to make the playoffs in the final weeks.
Other East matches to keep an eye on for 9/13:
Philadelphia (5th-T) host New York (4th) at 2:00PM
New England (3rd) host Montreal (10th) at 6:30PM
Chicago (9th) host Toronto FC (7th) at 7:30PM
The Dynamo will face Columbus on Saturday, September 13th in BBVA Compass Stadium at 7:30PM. Tickets are still available at HoustonDynamo.com. The match will be broadcast on CSN-Houston.