Two teams with equally valid reasons to believe themselves underdogs in this game will go head-to-head on Independence Day. Let us see what the rockets' red glare might expose when the New York Red Bulls take on Houston Dynamo on July 4...
More: Player Ratings: Week 15
Here's what we know:
- Houston is awful
The Dynamo has lost its last five matches by a combined score of 13-0. Five games: no wins; no goals. It isn't just the longest active losing streak in MLS right now, it's the longest active losing streak in MLS this season.
In fairness, four of the matches have been away from home: in DC on May 21 (lost 2-0); in San Jose on May 25 (lost 3-0); in Colorado on June 1 (lost 3-0); in Montreal last week, June 29 (lost 3-0). The solitary league game at home was on June 6, and that was lost 2-0 to Sporting Kansas City.
This isn't a skid, it's a tailspin. But this is MLS: teams are often at their most dangerous when they're awful, because parity.
- RBNY is awful (on July 4)
Deep breath...here's the New York Red Bulls' all-time record in games on or around July 4 in MLS (with thanks to MetroFanatic, still the best archive of this team's history you could ask for):
- 1996 - LOST 2-1 in Colorado
- 1997 - LOST 1-0 in Tampa Bay
- 1998 - LOST 1-0 in Colorado
- 1999 - LOST 3-2 in New England
- 2000 - WON 2-1 at home against Dallas (on July 5)
- 2001 - LOST 2-1 in Tampa Bay
- 2002 - LOST 2-0 in Dallas
- 2003 - WON 3-2 in DC
- 2004 - LOST 6-2 in DC (on July 3)
- 2005 - DREW 2-2 in Salt Lake
- 2006 - LOST 1-0 in LA
- 2007 - LOST 4-0 in Houston (on July 5)
- 2008 - LOST 4-0 in Colorado
- 2009 - LOST 2-1 in Dallas
- 2010 - DREW 1-1 in Colorado
- 2011 - DREW 2-2 in San Jose (on July 2; also beat Toronto 5-0 on July 6, but that was a midweek game)
- 2012 - LOST 2-0 in New England (on July 8)
- 2013 - LOST 2-0 in Colorado
It is a familiar tale to most Americans: head over to someone's house on July 4, eat their food, drink their drink, watch their fireworks, and try to be a good guest by causing no lasting damage. The last time RBNY did any harm to a host on July 4 was 2003 in DC - and they set us straight the next year and haven't invited us back since.
So...it's been 10 years and a rebrand since this team won a game on July 4 weekend.
- The (Dynamo's) boys are (mostly) back
Part of Houston's problem has been the absence of key players. Injuries have taken a toll: midfield linchpin Ricardo Clark missed nine games with concussion. But Clark returned to the bench last week, and was subbed in to the match against Montreal just in time to see L'Impact score two late goals and really take control of the game. His last match prior to that was one RBNY fans will remember fondly: the Dynamo's 4-0 drubbing at Red Bull Arena, the last time RBNY looked truly comfortable winning a game this year.
So maybe Clark isn't the answer to Houston's problems: the team did manage to win three of its first five games without him. Perhaps the greater issue has been up front - some of those losses might at least have been closer if the Dynamo had got a goal.
The World Cup robbed the Dynamo of Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia, two justly esteemed creators, and occasional scorers, of goals. Their commitments in Brazil are over. Garcia played for Houston last week; Davis is talking a good game on Twitter:
Well @HoustonDynamo and the rest of the city, it's been awhile. I just hope this bad boy still fits! pic.twitter.com/O2nn9gn7KG— Brad Davis (@Brad_Davis11) July 2, 2014
A team doesn't lose five in a row without having issues all over the field, but if Houston is to find a way back into this season, it must surely be with its best players. July 4 will mark the first occasion the Dynamo has been able to at least consider starting both Davis and Garcia since May 11 (when it lost 5-2 to RSL - like I said: problems all over the field).
If the weekend's starting lineup holds Clark, Davis and Garcia, it will be a stronger looking Houston than anyone in the league has faced for a while: the last match these three started together was the Dynamo's 4-1 home loss to Dallas, but Davis had to come off at half-time, and even then the score was 1-1 until David Horst got sent off.
It hasn't happened often this year, but Houston is technically undefeated for the two-and-a-half games it managed to keep its midfield core, and the right number of players overall, on the pitch.
We don't know if they will start together this weekend, but we do know Houston is pretty good when that happens.
Here's what we don't know:
- Can Titi, Peguy, BWP and Timmy start together?
Here's a problem Mike Petke hasn't had in a while: Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry, Peguy Luyindula and Bradley Wright-Phillips - all (as far as we know) fit and available.
Back at the start of the year, the general assumption was that Cahill would play either midfield, next to Dax McCarty, or forward, next to Henry. But now...well, if you put Tim in midfield, you are arguably depriving the team of its best attacking midfield asset: Peguy. And if you put him up front, you are presumably benching BWP, the top-scorer in MLS.
And if you don't play Tim at all: well, we saw what he can do when he helped set up RBNY's unexpected equalizer at the end of last week's game. You really want to leave Cahill, still glowing from his World Cup and career highlight performance against the Netherlands, on the bench?
It's difficult to see how to wedge all four players into the team with the current formation and tactics. Put Titi on the left, maybe? He sits out there a lot anyway, but it's an oddly isolated place for the man who is still the team's most creative, technically complete player. And while he'd surely track back to cover his full back's occasional forays up the field, Henry's tackling is...a little over-enthusiastic.
If you can crack the code, Mike, you might have the winning formula.
- Can the kids light up RBNY's Independence Day?
Chris Duvall has now had four consecutive starts in MLS, and looks well settled as the starter at right back for as long as he can avoid the problems which befell his predecessors in the position. Matt Miazga got his second league start against Toronto last week, and his punt got turned into the equalizer. Ambroise Oyongo was a surprise choice to start at left back, making his MLS debut ahead of Roy Miller's usual stand-ins, Bobby Convey and Kosuke Kimura - and he set up RBNY's first goal by way of thanks for being given a shot.
There's no great reason to bench any of them, other than perhaps a desire to shield the team's tender youth from one its traditional traumas: a road game on July 4.
But maybe a youthful lack of respect for history is exactly what the team needs: after all, Miazga and Duvall were part of the lineup that vanquished the club's long-cherished record of not-winning in New England.
- What to do with Eric Alexander?
It seems a long time ago that Alexander was a perfectly dependable right midfielder for RBNY's Supporters' Shield winning team. He was displaced by Lloyd Sam, and seemed destined to perhaps slot in next to Dax McCarty in the center of midfield - but it turns out Peguy Luyindula is the better option to run the attack from that position, or it's a place to stash Tim Cahill.
Alexander has had some good days this season on the left side of midfield, but he wasn't great at protecting the inexperienced Oyongo against Toronto last week.
He has also had some pretty good days standing in for Dax McCarty as the primary defensive midfielder, though Petke seems to prefer Ibrahim Sekagya's rare combination of experience, reliability, and some of the worst luck anyone has ever brought to a soccer field.
It seems every game, Sekagya will have a clearance threaten to turn into an own-goal, or get sent off trying to bail out the defense from yet another panic, but he knows the game he is playing and does the simple things that need to be done.
Alexander, on the other hand, seems to be struggling with the near-weekly task of adjusting to another position or another variation on his tactical assignments. His role is to fill whatever gap Petke sees in the lineup, and being the team's band-aid doesn't really seem to be working out.
If he's good enough to play every week, he should be good enough to play the same position every week. The question is: where?