Several unforgettable events have occurred in the metropolis of Houston since the New England Revolution (1-1-1, 4 pts, -1) last paid a visit. Their Gillette Stadium roommates came back to life in a record-setting affair still named with Roman numerals. The city itself was inundated for weeks in late summer from a major hurricane. And, most recently, the local nine used their bats and gloves to bring home the team's first-ever title.
While the Revs' last foray to H-town wasn't quite as memorable, it certainly wasn't forgettable. Donning their brand-new red road kits for the first time, New England and Houston (1-1-1, 4 pts, +3) played a thrilling match on opening day of 2016. A young(er) Diego Fagundez was the star that afternoon, scoring just minutes after kickoff with a long-range blast, then serving up a ball into the box that found the head of the diminutive Daigo Kobayashi, en route to the back of the net. That Diego-to-Daigo connection in the final seconds of stoppage-time was the match's 6th goal and gave the Revs a well-deserved 3-3 draw. As we all know, despite the season starting with such promise for New England, it ended just short of the playoffs.
Last season also went without a post-season for the Revs, but not for the Houston Dynamo. Under first-year manager Wilmer Cabrera — the former Colombian international and U.S. youth coach — the Dynamo made great strides toward a return to the glory days (a time of which Revs' fans are, unfortunately, well aware). Behind scoring leader Erick “Cubo” Torres (14 goals), Houston finished fourth in the West before succumbing to Seattle in the conference finals. Cabrera believes he has the core players needed to stay well above the red line and, quite possibly, contend for a trophy. He’s instilled a quick-strike attacking style that produced a club-record 57 goals last season as the team galvanized and bought into his system. Now in their second full season in that system, there's little reason to believe it won't be even more prolific.
The new campaign for Houston, however, has been quite uneven thus far. After an opening 4-0 throttling of trendy MLS Cup pick Atlanta United, the Dynamo inexplicably fell at home in Week 2 to Vancouver. Despite outshooting the visitors 21-7, Houston lost 2-1 to former Rev Kei Kamara and the Whitecaps. Then, just before last week's bye, the Dynamo drew 2-2 at DC United after the hosts scored at the death. However, the scoreline is rather deceptive, as Houston’s two goals came a minute apart following two dreadful defensive blunders. The Dynamo generated several decent chances, but were generally outplayed by DCU, especially in the second half.
This year, the scoring burden has shifted somewhat, as Torres took his pelota to Pumas of Liga MX during the offseason. Twenty-two-year-old Honduran international Alberth Elis, a 10-goal scorer in 2017, has assumed much of that load, and he's already scored twice in three matches from the right wing position. Cabrera also expects a significant contribution from another 22-year old, Colombian youth international Mauro Manotas, himself a 10-goal scorer last season at center forward. He’s scored twice, as well, in 2018.
The Houston attack is rounded out by 2012 MLS SuperDraft top pick Andrew Wenger at left wing, now in his third season with the Dynamo. Another Honduran international, dynamic young forward Romell Quioto, provides solid depth to both Wenger and Elis. Tomas Martinez, a product of the River Plate youth system in Argentina, has supplanted World Cup and Dynamo veteran Oscar Boniek-Garcia in the starting eleven at attacking mid. Each has recorded an assist this year.
In an effort to bolster a defense which allowed 45 goals, Houston brought in holding-mids Darwin Ceren from San Jose and Arturo Alvarez from Chicago to join former U.S. International Eric Alexander. They’ve also added a goal and two assists between them this season in Cabrera’s attack-minded squad. The backline is anchored by the ageless DaMarcus Beasley at left back. The Dynamo captain and veteran of four World Cups for the U.S. may not possess the wheels to get in on the attack as often as he used to, but Run-DMB certainly makes the most of his experience. What he may lack physically, he makes up cerebrally. He’s joined by an experienced backline of Leonardo, Adolfo Machado, and Phillippe Senderos, as well as former 2012 Revolution draft pick Kevin Garcia. Longtime FC Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz has secured the number 1 shirt, starting all three matches this season (7/11 saves) and recording a shutout.
New England is coming off a 2-2 draw with NYCFC and hoping to get their third consecutive result after the Week 1 fail in Philly. Against the David Villa-less Blues, the Revs employed an aggressive high press, especially in the first half, that was long on shots but short on goals. However, the pressure seemed to lose its luster as the match wore on, allowing NYCFC to find pockets of space downfield and produce a couple counterattacking goals in the second half. Will first-year Revs’ gaffer Brad Friedel high-press a speedy Dynamo club that’s deadly on the counter?
For the first time this season, New England rolled out a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Teal Bunbury at the top. Does Juan Agudelo, a Week 1 starter, replace a less-than-influential Bunbury? Diego Fagundez, positioned behind Teal, had another solid match and seems to have locked down the number 10 role. He scored a beauty from distance, but also missed a sitter in the box that might have changed the outcome of the match. Pachuca loanee Cristian Penilla, in his more natural right wing, continues to impress, as evidenced by his selection to the MLS Team of the Week. He and Diego, in particular, have developed nice chemistry. It was Penilla’s pinpoint laser of a cross — from the left side — that found Agudelo at the far post. Juan’s noggin did the rest, handing the Revs a temporary lead.
Young and promising Colombian midfielder Luis Caicedo made his MLS debut off the bench for New England, this after only two training sessions with his new club. He may be in line for more minutes on Saturday. The same can be said for Kristzian Nemeth, who just returned from international duty with Hungary and may have found his form after an impressive goal against Kazakhstan. We can’t avoid the elephant in the room, however: does Lee Nguyen finally make the bench and maybe even an appearance? He has been training with the squad and should be at or near full fitness at this point. Has he bought into what Friedel is selling, or does he still want a change of scenery?
On the defensive side, captain Claude Dielna returned from suspension against NYCFC, as did Gabriel Somi from injury. Veteran Jalil Anibaba, starting in place of Toni Delamea (also returned from suspension), put in another solid shift at centerback. Will that keep Delamea on the bench again? Rookie speedster Brandon Bye made another appearance, spelling Bunbury who had shifted to the wing. All in all, the Revs are fairly healthy across the board and fully available for this match against the Dynamo.
Houston uses a 4-2-3-1, but the focus of the attack is usually through Elis on the right side. Whether they’re building from the back or going over the top, the Dynamo try to get the ball to the feet of Elis. Somi, Dielna, and defensive mid Wilfried Zahibo, all culpable to some degree for the NYCFC goals, will have their work cut out for them. The Revs can’t afford defensive miscues against the Dynamo. To handle their speed, one has to wonder if Friedel will use as high a line as he did in the NYCFC match. Both Dielna and Zahibo seemed to have trouble closing down the NYCFC counter, as sporadic as it was. Maybe he swaps former Dynamo centerback Anibaba —who knows the Houston personnel — with Dielna to better contend with the right-sided attack?
If the Revs can’t maintain defensive discipline against a very quick Dynamo squad, this match could get out-of-hand in a hurry and could even see a red card. However, this match also has the potential to be a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair like we saw the last time these two teams met in Houston, the 3-3 draw. If the Revs can high-press and finish their chances, while allowing only minimal defensive breakdowns, that could be what we get.
This is the only meeting in 2018 between the former Eastern Conference rivals. Houston moved to the Western Conference after the 2014 season. Their MLS Cup woes notwithstanding, the Revolution lead the all-time series with an 11-5-7 mark.
How to Watch
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 31
Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, Texas
TV: myTV38 (Boston), KUBE 57 (Houston)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston), 95.7 HD-3 / Radio.com app / 1010 AM (Houston)
Streaming: MLS Live