I'm just going to go out and say it: the Houston Dynamo probably won't win their opening match of the season against the New England Revolution. Now, that's not to say they don't have a chance–they do–but the Revs will be a lot better than they were last year, and look to have the pieces in place to contend for a high-seed in the Eastern Conference.
If the Dynamo do manage to get a point from this game, they would have to do it by playing stout defense (especially in the central passing lanes) and getting on the attack down the right flank.
Here's everything else you need to know about the game:
This 4-2-3-1 formation, in use for a couple of years now, has become customary for New England. Lee Nguyen will play as a pure number-10 (more on him later) alongside a long-list of fellow attackers. Not only will Charlie Davies, Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez be considered for a starting spot, Kellyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury and Daigo Kobayashi are also in the mix. It could go multiple ways.
In deeper midfield, Scott Caldwell will play as the holding midfielder, allowing Gershon Koffie (Jermaine Jones's replacement) to push forward a bit. Chris Tierney, always a threat going forward, will start at left back opposite London Woodberry. Center-backs Andrew Farrell and Jose Gonçalves will play in front of goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth.
This lineup is completely open for debate. There are many different formations they could possibly use, and I'm just going with one Owen Coyle seemed to favor last season. Four new faces are seen here: Agus, Andrew Wenger, David Rocha and Cristian Maidana. Agus and David Horst are likely to battle it out during the season for the starting center-back spot next to Raul Rodriguez, while Wenger appears to have won the winger job with solid play in the preseason. Maidana has been a guaranteed starter since December, and Rocha will play alongside Clark in midfield. But again, this isn't close to being set in stone. Feel free to have a totally different lineup in mind. In fact, you can tell us who you think will start in our regular Pick the Lineup series.
What Revs will do:
—Play through Lee Nguyen: Nguyen is, by most accounts, one of the few real number-tens in the USMNT player pool. His skill-set allows him to be. The well-travelled former PSV man is always very active all throughout the midfield, receiving short passes from varying areas of the field and helping slowly advance their build-up play, which is why he ends up with so many touches on the ball.
Once they get the ball forward, Nguyen will take control in Zone 14, or the area outside the box. He then distributes to wherever he sees fit, whether it's a chip into the box or a through-ball to a channel runner on the wing. Don't count out his ability to take long shots either, shown by this amazing chip during the 2014 playoffs.
How to stop it:
—Shut down the passing lanes: In order to prevent Nguyen from inflicting his damage on the Dynamo defense, they have to be able to shut off his favorite passing options. This means having wingers track back to help with Tierney's constant runs up the right side. It also means that they have to be compact in the middle of the defense; the two center-backs have to be communicating with one of another. If they do this, they should be able to do the best job they can of taking away his options, specifically down the middle.
—Pressure from the midfield: Before and after Nguyen gets into his favorite distribution place on the field, the central midfielders have to be pressing him, not letting him find time to ponder his options. This also will momentarily take away his ability to fire one from long range on Tyler Deric.
How to beat the defense:
—Counter-attack: When Tierney ventures far up the field, the Dynamo need to take advantage of this. At some point during the game, they have to get speed going down that right side and create a scoring chance. The center-backs aren't particularly fast, so they should be able to break in on goal.
Keys to win:
—Team chemistry (to an extent): The Dynamo have a starting XI with a lot of players who don't have a lot of experience with one another. While the team-produced The Slice show makes it seem like all these players are all of a sudden best friends, once they get on the field and play in a competitive game, things will be difficult.
The MLS playoff races are always tight, so the Orange can't afford to give up points early in the season. They will have to jell fast in this match at home against New England.
—Find an identity and stick to it: We can't get to Decision Day this season and say "Oh, I wonder how the Dynamo will play this week." It's time Coyle establishes a consistent style of play and a steady first XI, and that starts with the opening game of the season. As Jurgen Klinsmann has showed us, tinkering is not the way to win.
—Organization: This is an important component in any soccer match—for that matter, in any sports contest—but it is especially critical for the Dynamo on Sunday.
In order to get off to a good start to the season, they have to play compact, pass crisply and not give the ball away in decisive positions. Everyone must stay in their area and do their share of defending and attacking. In these kind of games where the clubs haven't played competitive matches in months, it's time to get back to fundamentals.
If the Dynamo can do that better than New England, they just might pull off a surprise victory.