One team is riding a four game unbeaten string despite missing several key players due to injury and the other is stumbling with three consecutive losses despite facing an undermanned opponent at home in it's last match. I don't have to tell you which is which.
The Houston Dynamo currently sit in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-1-2 record (two draws came in road matches away to Seattle and New York) and could send the Fire into a pretty deep early hole with a victory. The starting line up Dominic Kinnear will deploy will still be missing some key pieces. Brian Ching is still unavaible, opening day starting center back Jermaine Taylor is out, and midfielders Lovel Palmer and Danny Cruz are question marks although the pair did return to training on Thursday.
Houston's back line without Taylor, who played in the opener and hasn't appeared since with a foot injury, will likely consist of Bobby Boswell and Andre Hainault in the middle Hunter Freeman on the right and converted midfielder Corey Ashe on the left. Ashe has plenty of pace but his inexperience on defense may be an area Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko can exploit. Hainault also had some injury issues earlier this week but has resumed full training. Tally Hall has been solid in goal allowing only four goals in five matches.
The Houston midfield is the core of their attack with dead ball specialist Brad Davis on the left and Danny Cruz on the right. Davis in particular is adept at crossing the ball into dangerous areas and will provide a test for the Fire's central defenders and goalkeeper. Cruz is the usual starter on the right but the early injury report listed him as "out" with a hyperextended knee that knocked him out of their last match although he also returned to training on Thursday. Colin Clark is the likely choice if Cruz can't go. Geoff Cameron, who began his MLS career in central defense, is the central attacker and also serves a dangerous ball. Without Palmer in the supporting central role, Kinnear could opt for "homegrown" rookie Alex Dixon.
The forwards shouldn't strike fear in most MLS clubs without Ching in the line up and newly signed Sergio Koke probably not available yet as he waits for paperwork to clear. Rookie Will Bruin, who the Fire considered selecting in the first round of the Superdraft this year, and Cam Weaver look to be the starters with former Crew forward Jason Garey also in the mix.
From the Fire's end Carlos De Los Cobos is considering making additional line up changes in lieu of the Fire's current negative run. One change that will occur out of necessity due to an injury to Cory Gibbs will be the regular season debut of Yamith Cuesta. The big defender (Cuesta is 6'-3") played in the USOC match against Colorado but has yet to get into another match. He'll pair with Josip Mikulic who blamed himself earlier this week for the failed offside trap which resulted in the Galaxy's first score on Sunday.
One change that will not occur is the replacement of Jalil Anibaba on the right side. De Los Cobos toyed with the idea of starting Dasan Robinson at right back but thought better of it today. Despite recent struggles, DLC remains impressed with Anibaba's willingness to listen and learn and will stick with the rookie for now. Anibaba will be directly matched up with Houston's most dangerous player in Davis while Gonzalo Segares will man the left side.
The Fire's midfield could also see some change. In an effort to get more out of the center of the pitch De Los Cobos is considering a starting move for Baggio Husidic in place of Mike Videira in tandem with Logan Pause. Daniel Paladini and Corben Bone were also mentioned earlier this week but I would expect Husidic to get the nod if a change is made. The coach didn't give a particular reason for Husidic's recent inactivity but did say he was happy with his effort in training camp and practice and noted that a decision at this position wouldn't be made until game day.
Bratislav Ristic is now fit and will continue to serve as a utility wing player and as a back up at right back if necessary. With Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko starting on the outside, Ristic is left as a spot player when needed.
Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves are healthy and Dominic Oduro is also hoping to see some time against his former team.
Jon Conway will make his second consecutive start ahead of Sean Johnson. De Los Cobos said after training today that Conway would continue to start for the time being. The coach was not certain if this move was going to be a long term change.
Injury Report (As of Tuesday)
OUT : Mike Banner M (L achilles tendinitis), Steven Kinney D (R achilles repair); DOUBTFUL: Cory Gibbs D (L hamstring strain), Marko Maric (L ankle sprain)
OUT : Calen Carr F (concussion), Brian Ching F (L rib separation), Jermaine Taylor D (R foot sprain), Francisco Navas Cobo M (R hamstring strain), Danny Cruz M (R knee hyperextension), Lovel Palmer M (L lower leg tendinitis)
De Los Cobos did say that Gibbs' hamstring injury was improving although he did not have a time table set for his return at the moment. The injury to Marko Maric is also not as serious as first thought and he expects Maric to be available in approximately two weeks.
The Fire are in deperate need of a win at home. The next match is away to Colorado and a 1-5-1 start would disastrous. Houston has managed some results early on althought their last match, a 1-0 win against New England, wasn't exactly pretty. A dubious hand ball non call resulted in a match winning Hunter Freeman goal and a victory over Vancouver the week before have provided the wins in their four game unbeaten run. The Fire still have kinks to iron out defensively.
Fire 1 Dynamo 1
The Rest of the League
New York supporters awakened Thierry Henry last week by booing him and the French forward responded with a goal and an assist against San Jose and another two goals last night in a 4-0 thumping of DC United. Henry is on form now. His beard on the other hand should still be roundly booed.
Colorado 2 Seattle 1 - The Rapids are at home and Seattle plays a second straight road match as they try to figure out how to get Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales onto the pitch at the same time.
San Jose 1 Chivas USA 0 - San Jose may have something to prove after getting trounced in New York and Chivas is just the cure.
Toronto 1 Columbus 0 - The Crew have only allowed one goal all year but they've only scored three themselves. TFC should be able to eke one out at home.
FC Dallas 1 Vancouver 1 - The Whitecaps have shown that they're capable of scoring goals at home although they've only scored twice in their last three matches (2 at home). FC Dallas is still struggling to find themselves.
Kansas City 1 New England 1 - The Revolution picked up Benny Feilhaber but his debut will probably have to wait until next week. Kansas City's vaunted offense was shut down in Columbus last week.
Los Angeles 2 Portland 0 - After winning against the Fire with their B team, the Galaxy should be able to handle Portland with Landon Donovan returning. The Timbers may find the going much tougher outside of their cozy new confines.