At roughly 8:15 last Saturday night, the Houston Dynamo felt pretty good. A commanding performance ("possibly the best first half we'd played in a long time" according to Dom Kinnear) and a 2-0 scoreline against Columbus Crew was as good as could be hoped for. With every important Eastern match playing out to draws that night, Houston would have leaped Toronto FC and been just three points out of the playoff picture.
Instead, the second half played out as a microcosm of the entire season. Boniek Garcia, after an impressive half and a head collision, reported blurry vision at halftime and was removed. Brad Davis saw a surprisingly early exit and defensive miscues reared their ugly heads. By 8:45, the Dynamo were level with Columbus and headed to a lost opportunity in which the Eastern standings remained the same after a series of draws.
Traveling to Philadelphia this weekend, Houston seeks to get back on track with only a sliver of light remaining in their playoff hopes. Adversity has defined the Dynamo season and this game is not without its own elements to overcome. As of Thursday, Boniek is being listed "Questionable" on the injury report due to his concussion symptoms last Saturday. With no word on Taylor or Bruin (who both were hopeful to play against Columbus), it's hard to pin down a lineup.
Philadelphia, by contrast, has a blank injury report that comes with a few caveats. After battling through the US Open Cup, the Union fell to Seattle on Tuesday night in the tournament's final. That match extended into extra time, putting Philadelphia through a grueling 120 minutes that resulted in a 3-1 loss. It was a high-energy affair with a lot of counterattacking play that might serve to drag legs around the pitch on Saturday. One might think the scheduling Gods were smiling on Houston considering the last time Houston and Philadelphia played (a 2-0 Dynamo win in Houston), the Union were visibly exhausted just days after an extremely humid extra time Semifinal in Dallas. This weekend's match poses as a chance for Houston to capitalize again on a team wading through matches and reeling from a hard-fought loss.
Philadelphia have not traveled much recently, hosting the USOC final, and now heading into their third consecutive home match against Houston. The Union had their impressive 10-game home unbeaten streak snapped by Seattle just days after Sebastien Le Toux rescued a 90th minute point against New York. On that Saturday, with the USOC final looming, Union head coach Jim Curtin rested five starters but was forced to turn to his bench when New York took a 2-0 lead.
This tactic put more minutes on starters (like Le Toux) than Philadelphia would have liked, and it's possible we may see limited play from some of them on Saturday. With defender Maurice Edu traveling to New York on Thursday for the MLS logo reveal, rumor is that Philadelphia may be resting him against Houston. Philly's attack, including Cristian Maidana and Le Toux, may see a mixture of starting and sub minutes in this match, having played both games earlier this week.
Union forward Andrew Wenger looks to carry more responsibility if starters are rested on Saturday. Wenger, who also played in the USOC Final, has recorded 14 shots in the last five games (including USOC) and has proven irreplaceable in the attack. As long as Wenger starts this match, he will be the target player the Dynamo will need to contain if they have hopes of keeping damage to a minimum.
On the other end of the field, the goalkeeper controversy in Philadelphia does not seem settled. New signing Rais M'bolhi has finally moved to the bench but is yet to take the field. Zac MacMath continues to start for the Union and make his case to stay but, facing an intense week of play, Curtin will face the decision to either rest MacMath, giving M'Bolhi his first MLS start, or allow the young keeper to continue his string of recent performances.
Among the potential minute restrictions and rests that Curtin will dole out, it is apparent that Philadelphia may struggle when they turn to bench depth to take over. Bench players have had their chances recently, but as was seen in the first half against New York, several players' invisible performances and flat offense necessitated logging minutes on starters in order to secure any result.
Should Curtin give bench players more playing time, Houston may reap benefits as the Dynamo have finally begun hitting an offensive groove. Logging 10 goals in their last 5 games (while also giving up 8), the Dynamo have beared witness to the resurgent efforts of Omar Cummings and Giles Barnes. The forward pair have helped in creating chances from darting runs and one-on-one skill, looking ready to keep an opponent's defense honest.
The backline, however, is a different concern. It's a tall task to ask AJ Cochran and David Horst to play cohesively after only two games, but the pair may be relied upon again this weekend if Taylor remains out. In those two games, defensive errors have cost the Dynamo four goals and left unanswered questions on how to fix issues. With Kofi Sarkodie and DaMarcus Beasley playing deep into the attacking half, it's no wonder that an effective counter attack stretches our defensive duo. Luis Garrido, who leads the league in tackles since his August 4th debut (31), will again be relied upon to snuff out Philadelphia's strong counter attacking threat.
Should the Dynamo return home with zero points, playoff chances will be hanging by the most frayed of threads. However, a cohesive and whole performance that secures three can do wonders with other Eastern teams hosting difficult opponents this weekend. Doing so makes the Dynamo an instant contender in the East and should provide the confidence boost deflated by Columbus last week.
Other matches to watch:
New York (4) vs. Seattle at 6:30 (NBC Sports Network)
Columbus (5-T) vs. New England (3) at 6:30 (MLS Live)
Chicago (9) vs. DC United (2) at 7:30 (MLS Live)
Toronto (7) vs. Chivas USA at 2:00 on Sunday (UniMas)
The Dynamo travel to Philadelphia Union on Saturday, September 21st at PPL Park. The match begins at 6:00PM (EST) and can be seen on CSN-Houston Plus and Telemundo.