Nigel Brooks

Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis is optimistic for his new club against former team D.C. United

The Dynamo head to the nation’s capital to face early-season pacesetters on Saturday night feeling confident after last week’s 3-0 victory over the Montreal Impact.

Houston’s defense continued its stingy form and the attack ignited, making goalkeeper Joe Willis optimistic of three points at RFK Stadium against D.C. United, his former club (6 p.m. CT, ROOT SPORTS).

“They’ve got a good team, a lot of good players, they have a good attitude and spirit about their team so it’s going to be tough, especially at home for them, but I think we have a pretty quality team here and the three goals last game kind of opened the door for us and I think we can use that momentum going forward,” he told HoustonDynamo.com.

The 26-year-old saw United’s ups and downs first-hand as a member of the team from 2011-2014. The Dynamo acquired him in a trade last December and he is serving as a backup to first-choice goalkeeper Tyler Deric. In total, the St Louis native made 23 MLS regular-season appearances for D.C., who were the worst team in MLS in 2013 but rebounded to finish top of the Eastern Conference standings last year. They were ousted from the playoffs by the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals.

The Dynamo missed out on the postseason in 2014 but from what he has seen so far in this campaign, Willis is expecting a strong rebound.

Asked why D.C.’s form has fluctuated in recent years, Willis said: “I think it was just an attitude thing to be honest, I think guys really started caring more from the beginning last season when I was in D.C. and I think that really showed.

“I think last year we were embarrassed by [2013] and sure as hell not going to let it happen again. I think it’s just personal pride. Houston struggled a little bit last year but that’s one year in the entire time they’ve been here that they haven’t been great, so I think we’ll bounce back from that year.”

Willis said another big factor in the D.C. turnaround was the addition of veteran players who provided strong leadership from the first kick: “The way that all these guys came in and it was their first year and everything just gelled so easily was pretty amazing. Their communication, their experience, everything comes into play and I think that was a huge part of our turnaround last year.”

The Dynamo added another experienced player to their roster this week with the acquisition of versatile midfielder Alex from the Chicago Fire, with forward Jason Johnson moving in the other direction. The 26-year-old Brazilian has made 76 MLS regular season appearances since arriving in the league in 2012 and scored a late goal against Houston that year in the Dynamo’s 2-1 playoff victory.

He has also played in Switzerland. “Alex is an experienced player, he has European experience, he certainly understands the game,” said head coach Owen Coyle, “Alex is a talented player, a technical player and I would hope he’ll feel a new lease of life, a freshness, similar to Jason going to Chicago, and there’s no doubt that he can contribute to our squad with everything he can do. He’s capable of playing in a couple of positions. The same as every one of [the squad], he’s going to have to earn the right to play in the team.”

With ten points from five matches, Ben Olsen’s side top the East standings (though the Red Bulls could leapfrog them with victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night). The Dynamo have two injury doubts, according to the official report: defender Raúl Rodríguez, who is recovering from a concussion, and midfielder Boniek García, who has a left knee sprain.

It’s the only regular-season meeting between the two former East rivals, now that the Dynamo have shifted into the Western Conference. Coyle said the offensive explosion against the Impact  was no surprise and he is looking for another strong road display on Saturday before the team returns to BBVA Compass Stadium for a three-match homestand.

“The bottom line is, I had faith and trust in those players and when you keep knocking at the door that door’s going to open. The margins are very fine and we knew we were very close,” he said.

“The performance at LA and the performance at Seattle … we know we can replicate those performances and just add a little bit in that forward dimension. We know we’re capable of going on the road and winning games. We go there understanding the quality that D.C. have and knowing that we’re going to have to be at our best but they’ll also know that if we get to our level we’re capable of going to D.C. and winning and that’s the message I’m sending out to the players.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.