We learned a lot about the New York Red Bulls this week: mostly things we'd probably prefer not to know. Mercifully, the team has a game, so we can focus attention to matters on the field - at least for 90 minutes.
Here's what we know:
- The Dynamo is as good as it has ever been this season (and so is RBNY)
The New York Red Bulls have played Houston twice already this season. Back in April, RBNY caught the Dynamo at the end of a brutal run of four-out-of-five games on the road. The Red Bulls duly inflicted Houston's fourth loss of that stretch, courtesy of BWP's first hat-trick of the year.
On July 4, RBNY turned up in Texas to play a team that had lost five straight without scoring a goal. The Red Bulls seemed to be heading for a 2-1 win when referee Ismail Elfath had a stirring hallucination, awarded a late penalty to the Dynamo, and the points were shared.
This time around, Houston is in much better shape. The team won just five games of its first 20 played this season; it has won five of its last 10 matches - and lost only twice in that run.
The Dynamo has pulled itself together.
Of course, RBNY also only managed five wins in its first 20 games, and has also won five of its last 10.
- Jamison Olave is suspended; Tim Cahill and Armando are on the tightrope
Olave's booking against LA last weekend brought with it a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation. So the big man is out for Houston's visit.
Tim Cahill is one card away from a suspension, though if he manages to get through the game against the Dynamo without a card, he will benefit from MLS's "good behavior incentive" and effectively be allowed to gather two further yellow cards before being told to sit out a game.
Armando has already received the benefit of good behavior and will be suspended after his next yellow card.
So Mike Petke some thinking to do about the lineup for this game, and how those choices may affect forthcoming matches.
- The Red Bulls really need to get back to playing soccer
RBNY has had a horrendous couple of weeks. Last week, at least, the problems were largely on the field: the team got bounced from CONCACAF Champions League and trounced by LA Galaxy.
After those testing times, a quiet week on the training field would have been ideal.
Grant Wahl published a piece for Sports Illustrated that threaded several bits of tittle-tattle into one simple observation: Papa Red Bull could be about to cut its MLS team loose. The least troubling part of that article was an unnamed source's confident proclamation that there was "zero chance" Thierry Henry would be back for the Red Bulls next year.
But Gerard Houllier - who increasingly functions as RBNY's almost-forgotten relative who only pops up to make a bad situation worse - decided to make a brief comment to the French media on the subject of his conviction that this season is Titi's last run with the Bulls. And then, in the manner of an all-too-well-remembered relative who realizes he may have had one drink too many last night, Houllier apparently recanted his earlier statements.
And then someone inside the club decided to sound off about Tim Cahill's international commitments. This encouraged a line of questioning to the team's misfit Australian superstar that achieved very little other than to get an understandably irritated Cahill to re-iterate his achievements for club and country.
Whatever the merits of each and every talking point, they all add up to a very poorly-timed distraction for a team that ought to be focused on winning (at least) three of its next four games and marching into the playoffs with the necessary momentum and determination to shake off the disappointments of the regular season.
Fans may have hoped the team would take the field against with quiet resolve. After this week, the mood will more likely be one of relief.
Here's what we don't know:
- Does Petke stick with Chris Duvall?
The education of RBNY's rookie right back jumped to an advanced level last week, when Duvall faced the test most MLS full backs fail: containing Landon Donovan.
Petke made comments on Seeing Red suggesting he's mindful of the need to manage the rookie's time and experience. Houston doesn't have LD, but it can line up DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Davis on the left flank, with Oscar Boniek Garcia switching with Davis just to keep the defense guessing. That is an international-class, triple-threat to Duvall, who may still be recovering from last week's struggles.
Does Petke hold back his rookie starter for his own protection? Or give him the chance to redeem himself in front of his home crowd?
- Is Will Bruin back?
Bruin is the Dynamo's leading scorer this season, despite having missed the team's last four games. He limped off the field after scoring the opening goal of Houston's 3-1 win in Kansas City on August 29.
The big man returned to training this week, and there is some understandable excitement about the possible return of a popular player. But coach Dom Kinnear may have noticed that his team has scored nine goals in the four-and-a-half games since Bruin was injured - and that is more than a quarter of the club's total for the season to date (35).
- Is this RBNY's last look at the Kinnear-era Dynamo?
Dominic Kinnear has coached Houston Dynamo since it was a Supporters' Shield winning club in San Jose. He's the only head coach the Dynamo has ever known, and he's guided the club to four MLS Cup finals and two MLS Cups in eight seasons.
But the Quakes have reportedly been looking to bring Kinnear back to the Bay Area, and Houston is apparently willing to let him go.
Barring an unlikely rematch in this year's playoffs (it feels like there is only room for either RBNY or Houston in the 2014 post-season, not both), this could be the last time the Red Bulls meet the Dynamo with Kinnear on the sidelines.