This week I decided to resurrect the Three Questions series in order to preview Saturday night's match between the Houston Dynamo and Colorado Rapids. Houston travel to Colorado filled with mental momentum following last weekend's exciting 4-3 victory over Chicago. The Rapids are coming off of a disappointing 3-1 loss to Columbus (pushing their streak to only one win in the last ten games) knowing that they need to pick up points at home and build some momentum.
For both teams, Saturday's game is a must-win and would help push either team closer towards one of the wild card playoff spots. Currently, Colorado sits one place ahead of Houston in the Western Conference standings (6th), but had played one less game and has a five-point lead. The Dynamo know that a win could potentially make or brake the team's playoff dreams.
History in this series favors Houston, though, but Colorado typically plays the Dynamo well at home. Overall, Houston leads the series with a record of 7-3-3, but the Rapids traditionally have made things difficult at home for the Dynamo.
With all that being said, let's start with our three questions.
1. Can Houston score from open play?
As exciting as Houston's 4-3 win over Chicago was, there were a few points of concern to take away from the game.
First, all four of the Dynamo's goals came from some form of a set piece. Captain Brian Ching opened up the scoring when Fire goal keeper Sean Johnson fell on his back following a corner kick, coughing up the ball into Ching's feet, who smashed a shot home.
Lovel Palmer scored the second goal of the night after Richard Mulrooney passed the ball into Palmer's feet on a free kick from outside the box. Palmer's low, hard shot snuck past the post and extended Houston's lead.
Ching scored his second goal of the night with a fantastic bicycle kick after Bobby Boswell struck a corner kick off the upright. The fourth goal, and eventual winner, was the result of a Brian Ching header from another Richard Mulrooney corner kick.
Even though all four goals were impressive and unique in their own way, it should be concerning that they all came from set pieces. While the Dynamo have been dangerous on set pieces for years, it would be nice for the team to score goals from open play. However, for Houston to continue scoring from set pieces, it seems they will need to continue to come of the feet of Richard Mulrooney. Including him in the squad means moving around a few key players. We will look at that more in Question 3.
Ultimately, though, if you win games who cares how the goals are scored, right? All that matters is the team finding anyway to score so they can continue to hunt for a play-off spot.
2. Will Conor Casey manhandle Houston's defense again?
When these teams last met after the World Cup break, Colorado forward Conor Casey manhandled Houston's defense. His opening goal came after flustered Dynamo center-back Eddie Robinson gave up the ball to Mehdi Ballouchy who fed a pass to Casey that he slotted passed Pat Onstad.
Throughout the match, Casey's physical presence disrupted Houston's back line and forced a few near-costly mistakes. He dominated Danny Cruz on a number of runs and even showed up veterans like Robinson. So the question is, Can Casey do it again?
The answer is yes, but it does not look likely. Houston will be fielding two players this weekend that did not play in the last match-up between the two sides. Those players are Geoff Cameron and Anthony Obodai. Cameron is a special player who brings a unique skill set to the game. He can use his size and height to get over forwards, heading the ball away, and can cut out passes destined just beyond the back line. He also can use his quickness, as we have seen, to shut down forwards, even as they get into the box. Cameron is likely to start again in Eddie Robinson's spot and should be able to frustrate and shut down Casey.
Part of the key to that battle, though, is Anthony Obodai closing down Casey early. The small center-defensive midfielder playing against Conor Casey will look like Danny DeVito next to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins. But, don't write off Obodai just because of his size. The little big-man has brought a calmness and control to the Houston midfield and has made the Dynamo a better team. His presence was so important against Chicago, that the Fire were unable to score a goal when he was on the pitch, only netting goals when he the pitch injured. Obodai may not be 100-percent recovered from his injury, but he is expected to start and will be the first key player in shutting Conor Casey down.
Also helping Houston is that neither Casey or fellow striker Omar Cummings have scored n over a month. Rapids fans are thinking these players are due for a breakout game, but Houston's defense should be strong enough to shut Casey and Cummings down.
3. Who will be in Houston's starting XI?
The injury bug that infected Houston for most of the season seems to have (finally!) gone away. For what was likely the first time all year, the entire team practiced together on Thursday. There are still a few players carrying minor knocks, but for the most part the team is healthy.
So what does this mean for Coach Dominic Kinnear as he forms his staring eleven for Saturday's game? Well, he, for once, has choices.
Expect to see a line-up similar to what was fielded against Chicago, with Ching and Oduro starting up top, Obodai and Palmer in the middle of the pitch, Danny Cruz on one wing, Brad Davis replacing Brian Mullan on the other wing, a back line of Mulrooney, Boswell, Cameron, and Hainault, with Onstad in goal. The only change from the Chicago line-up is bringing Davis back in, replacing Brian Mullan.
This starting eleven is essentially Houston's best possible squad. You could argue that Mike Chabala is a better left back than Mulrooney, but Mulrooney's service from set pieces has been too vital to Houston's success (see Question Two) to leave him on the bench. Starting Ching and Oduro up top (along with Davis and Cruz as aggressive players from the wings) means that this team could wear out Colorado's defense early in the second half. That would allow Coach Kinnear to bring on a creative attacking player like Joseph Ngwenya or other attacking options in Brian Mullan or Cam Weaver.
Here's a look at Houston's potential line-up:
F: Brian Ching
F: Dominic Oduro
LM: Brad Davis
CAM: Lovel Palmer
CDM: Anthony Obodai
RM: Danny Cruz
LB: Richard Mulrooney
CB: Geoff Cameron
CB: Bobby Boswell
RB: Andrew Hainault
GK: Pat Onstad
All in all, Dynamo fans should be excited about this game. For the first time in a long time we are get to watch our best team play in a game that matters (for loads of reasons) against decent opposition away from home.
I, for one, think that the Dynamo could and should be succesful, and think that they will win 2-1.
Check back here and at Dynamo Theory on Saturday night for in-game updates and analysis.