When the Dynamo host Toronto FC on Saturday night, in a vital clash with significant playoff implications for both teams, they will do so without three of their four starting midfielders.
Houston's typical 4-4-2 formation usually features a midfield composed of Brad Davis, Lovel Palmer, Anthony Obodai and Brian Mullan, but for Saturday's game, Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear will only have Brad Davis at his disposal.
So where did everyone go?
Well, Lovel Palmer will be in the stands at Robertson Stadium, but is ineligible to play due to a red card suspension from the game against the Colorado Rapids. Palmer could have served his suspension against San Jose but opted to play for the Jamaican national team in a friendly, delaying his suspension to this week's match.
Anthony Obodai, the recently added center-defensive midfielder will miss the match after having surgery to fix his torn medial meniscus in his left knee. Obodai will be out of the line-up indefinitely for the injury sustained against the Chicago Fire.
In case you live under a bridge and missed this week's news, the Dynamo traded midfielder Brian Mullan to the Colorado Rapids for Colin Clark plus allocation move. Mullan, a veteran of the two-time title-winning Dynamo team, was somewhat unexpectedly away on Wednesday, just ahead of the MLS trade deadline, in a deal that had tremendous upside for the Dynamo. Regardless, he obviously will not be in tonight's starting line-up (at least for Houston), meaning that the coaching staff will have to make some tough decisions.
So, who should fill in the gaps in the midfield?
Brad Davis is expected to start on the left side of the formation. Sometime starter Danny Cruz will likely bring his speed to the right side of the formation, giving Houston decent attacking options from the outside. The midfield situation gets a bit trickier when the focus is shifted to the two central positions of the midfield.
Richard Mulrooney has filled in at the center-defensive midfield role all season. He has the veteran knowledge and awareness to do well in Saturday's game, but his tendency to push too far up the pitch and lack of pace to cover ground has been exposed time and time again this season. If Mulrooney is on the pitch, though, he can take set pieces, freeing up Brad Davis for an attacking position on dead ball plays.
Another possible solution for the center of the midfield is starting Geoff Cameron at either the center-attacking or center-defensive midfielder positions. Cameron has the pace, size, instincts to shoot and is enough of an attacking threat that he could easily fill the attacking role. He also has the defensive skills and awareness, something Dynamo fans saw all of last season and have seen since his return from injury this season. The one wrinkle with starting Cameron in midfield is the pace of Toronto's attack, something that, without his speed, could really trouble the Dynamo defense. Regardless, it is likely that Cameron will start in the center of Houston's midfield on Saturday night.
A third option, and offensive-minded choice, would be starting forward Joseph Ngwenya in the center-attacking midfielder position. This position would add some much needed composure and creativity to Houston's midfield and would essentially add a third forward to the Dynamo's attack. As offensive plays develop, Ngwenya and (likely) Oduro or Ching could interchange roles, confusing the Toronto defense and providing a mix of creativity and skill. This move would be somewhat out of character for Coach Kinnear, but a must-win game sometimes demands a bit of recklessness, and ultimately, what do the Dynamo have to lose?
While any of the possible midfield combinations may not be ideal, the Dynamo have options when they line up against Toronto FC. If anything, this musical chairs with players should be something the Dynamo are used to by now; the team probably would not know what to do if they weren't dealing with injuries, international call-ups or suspensions.
Here's who I would like to see in Houston's starting line-up:
F: Brian Ching
F: Dominic Oduro
LM: Brad Davis
CAM: Joseph Ngwenya
CDM: Richard Mulrooney
RM: Danny Cruz
LB: Geoff Cameron
CB: Eddie Robinson
CB: Bobby Boswell
RB: Andrew Hainault
GK: Pat Onstad