An away game in Houston is one that no team looks forward to. The Dynamo have not been beaten in 35 games at home with their last defeat coming in June 2011 against the Columbus Crew, highlighting the colossal task Colorado Rapids have on their hands on Sunday evening. Sitting in 2nd in the East, Houston have already notched wins against DC United, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire at BBVA Compass Stadium, losing only two of their opening seven matches.
Over the offseason, the Dynamo weren't particularly active in the transfer market. Aside from draftees, the only players to be signed up were ex-Hearts winger Andrew Driver, Eric Brunner over from Portland Timbers and Mike Chabala. Of these, only Driver was envisaged as a potential starter and has grown into the role vacated by the injury to Oscar Boniek Garcia. The hardworking winger can play on either the left or right and provides a threat with both his pace and delivery.
Last time out, Houston Dynamo struggled to a draw at BMO Field vs Toronto FC after a stoppage time Warren Creavalle equaliser off a driver corner kick. It was a performance that was typically sluggish on the road with them allowing Toronto a fair few chances to extend their lead which were squandered one-by-one. The task was made harder when the Dynamo were forced to play the last 30 minutes with 10-men following an absolutely terrible decision (even by MLS refereeing standards) to send off Jermaine Taylor for nothing at all.
Taylor's red card will ensure he's missing for Sunday's encounter, breaking up quite a dominant partnership between him and Bobby Boswell. Eric Brunner should deputise for Taylor and on his performance against TFC alone, will provide a more than adequate replacement for him. The only issue may be his lack of match practice. On top of Taylor missing out, there are also question marks surrounding the fitness of both Brad Davis and Adam Moffat who picked up groin and hamstring injuries in the draw in Toronto. Davis is currently rated 50/50 to make Sunday's game and the absence of the assist-machine would be a big loss for Houston.
Typically, the Dynamo are set up in sort of a 4-4-2 - with wide midfielders, an anchorman (usually in the form of Adam Moffat) and a more advanced central midfielder (Ricardo Clark). Much of the play is focused down either wing with Clark pushing forward through the middle to support Giles Barnes and Will Bruin. However, assuming both Moffat and Davis miss out, it is feasible that Boniek Garcia may return early from injury with Driver shifting out to the left and Garcia on the right. In terms of replacing Moffat, it's likely that it will be Luiz Camargo or Warren Creavalle to fill in for him. The fullbacks in the four-man defence usually get forward a fair bit, utilising their abundance of pace often to get them out of sticky situations that their lack of positioning means they find themselves in.
The gulf between the Dynamo that turns out at BBVA Compass Stadium and the one that plays on the road is massive. At home, they have been imperious in comparison to their lacklustre away performances which, to me, is interesting. If they are prone to the kinds of defensive mistakes that have cost them time after time on the road, then surely, if put under the same pressure at home, they could give up the same opportunities. The problem that the Rapids will encounter though is having any firepower at all as we saw little on show without Edson Buddle and Deshorn Brown against Seattle Sounders.
It's unlikely that the Rapids will threaten much pace-wise out wide even if Brown plays unless they can find the space in behind the centrebacks instead. Boswell is as dependable a defender as you will find in MLS - he anchors the defence and provides a steadying influence to the others who are prone to a mistake every now and again. At fullback, both Kofi Sarkodie and Corey Ashe excel physically but at times do lack in their positioning and if they are venturing forward they could get caught out on the break. Ashe needs to be watched by Atiba Harris though for the threat he provides when going forward and has the potential to provide an overlap for whoever is placed on the left side of midfield.
If Driver is moved over to the left-hand side, he will be much more of a threat than on the right. Once pursued by the likes of Chelsea, Driver's development was stunted by a bad knee injury that restricted him to only 14 appearances in the 2010/11 season and curtailed the Premier League interest. His pace and dribbling ability are often cited as being his strengths however he has the rare capacity to run all day long, tiring out defenders and wearing them down. He's just about working his way into being a first team regular in Houston and Brian Mullan will have his hands full for the 90 if he's put in at right back.
The centre of the park for the Dynamo is the engine of the team with Ricardo Clark playing box-to-box and, generally, Adam Moffat sat screening the defence. Clark provides a threat from deep as he tends to arrive late into the box meaning he's harder to pick up. He also can provide a second defensive midfielder for when the Rapids are on the attack and block the central route. The Rapids may have to look for more direct balls out to the flanks and over the fullbacks as a way through the Dynamo defence.
Up top, Houston Dynamo pose a dynamic threat with the height and strength of Will Bruin and the pace, dribbling and creativity of Giles Barnes. Although Barnes was quiet at Toronto last Saturday, he's still the dangerman for me as he is someone who can pull out something unexpected either through an assist or goal. If Barnes has any weaknesses it is that he seems to be made of glass. He's a very injury prone guy and if Drew Moor/Marvell Wynne are able to rough him up a little bit (all legally of course) then it's quite possible he might just not fancy the battle.
For the Rapids to get something from Sunday then they will have to make sure they stay switched on with the amount of balls that are likely to be put into the box from both sides. They've got to win the battle on the wings to prevent the ball getting into the box as well as watching for the quick break that the Dynamo possesses with the pace and technical ability that their forwards have. Going forward, I'm not sure how the Rapids are going to line up and therefore I'm unsure what the best way through the Houston defence will be with the attackers on the field. For me, the best way to play away against the Dynamo is on the counter and get the ball forward as quickly as possible, turning the centre back pairing who lack the pace to keep up with Brown and co. If Oscar Pareja can get the team to forget about the home record that Houston have and to not feel any pressure when entering the field then that is half of the battle won. It is if we go out afraid of them before a ball has been kicked that we will lose.