The Colorado Rapids have an injury list of epic proportions heading into Sunday's game at BBVA Compass Stadium. In fact, they're hurting so badly, it's giving the Dynamo a headache.
Colorado will arrive missing up to ten first-choice players, hampering the Dynamo's tactical preparations. Given the inevitability of unfamiliar names in an uncertain line-up it's hard to know what to expect from the Rapids as they bid to shatter Houston's record-setting home unbeaten streak.
With typical attention to detail, head coach Dominic Kinnear and his assistants are analyzing all kinds of possible scenarios so they can quickly impart essential information to the Dynamo players when the teamsheets arrive about an hour before kickoff.
"Going into this our scouting is, 'if I have this lineup, this lineup, this lineup, this guy pulling out, this guy coming in'... so it's been a tough team to watch. We try to get as much information as we can about them individually and the way they play team-wise, and then when you get a teamsheet you can let the guys know more," Kinnear told HoustonDynamo.com.
"Stepping back, you do feel for them a little bit. Saying that, you have to prepare for the guys who will get a chance to play and want to show the coach that they belong on the field. You have to prepare for them to play their best game," he added.
Unknown before this season, Clint Irwin is one Rapids back-up who has seized his chance. The 24-year-old goalkeeper was originally third-choice but has enjoyed an outstanding start to his MLS career and earned Save of the Week honors when he stopped Alvaro Saborio's penalty kick in a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake in Week Six.
"These guys get paid to play soccer and I'm sure all these players when they step into their first day of preseason they want to get the chance to play. If you look at MLS a lot of teams go deep because injuries do happen for whatever reason," said Kinnear.
Colorado fell to an unlucky 1-0 home loss to the Seattle Sounders last week, giving Seattle their first league win of 2013. Striker Edson Buddle pulled out shortly before kickoff with knee pain, then defender Marvell Wynne suffered a right quad strain during the match.
At least Colorado head coach Oscar Pareja can take comfort from knowing that an important veteran, Brian Mullan - who was a key part of the 2006 and 2007 Dynamo championship-winning teams - is fit. And Pareja told ColoradoRapids.com on Friday that previously-injured midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Martin Rivero will travel to Texas. The visitors might also find solace in this statistic: they have not lost in their past six encounters with Houston.
The Dynamo also had health concerns this week but midfielders Adam Moffat, Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia took part in training on Friday. So Kinnear has options as Houston bid to extend their historic home unbeaten run to 36 games unbeaten in all competitions. Win or tie on Sunday and the Dynamo will improve to 30 successive MLS matches on their own field without defeat, breaking Salt Lake's current record of 29.
Kinnear will adopt a safety-first approach to team selection ahead of a testing stretch of five games in 21 days next month. Only three days after facing the LA Galaxy in California on May 5, the Dynamo must cross to the East Coast to meet D.C. United. Then it's back to BBVA Compass Stadium for a huge clash with Sporting Kansas City, the current Eastern Conference leaders.
"If there's any question about guys injury-wise we'll probably be on the cautious side because we're looking at three games in a week, four games in 14 days, so it'd be a surprise if the same eleven go," said Kinnear.
He can afford to trust in a squad rotation policy given how well the likes of Andrew Driver and Warren Creavalle have performed this year when asked to deputize. Offseason signing Eric Brunner is set to partner Bobby Boswell at center back on Sunday as Jermaine Taylor is suspended after his red card in the 1-1 draw away to Toronto FC last Saturday.
"Guys have been away - internationals, suspensions, injuries - and I think we've played pretty well. A lot of guys have seen a lot of minutes. We said at the beginning of the year it's going to happen and it's going to continue to happen," said Kinnear.
So it's no surprise that the goalscoring burden is being shared around the squad. Four players - Davis, Creavalle, Will Bruin and Giles Barnes - are tied for club top-scorer with two goals. The Dynamo's eleven MLS goals so far in 2013 have come from six players (plus a headed donation from D.C. United's James Riley). Eight Houston players have contributed assists.
"The old saying is that you really don't care who scores as long as you score, but it's nice to see guys chip in, and in different ways, too," said Kinnear. "It's not just one guy in a similar fashion, we're getting goals in different areas from different people which is good to see. It gives guys confidence and I think it spreads throughout the team."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.