The Union open their 2011 season tonight in Houston against the Dynamo (8:30PM/6ABC). Although the road was unkind last season the Union did manage to pick up their first ever road win in Houston last May. Danny Mwanga was the hero that night, netting the game winner in stoppage time.
As detailed in our season preview post a number of new faces will make their Union regular season debut this evening. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, center back Carlos Valdes, midfielder Brian Carroll, and forward Carlos Ruiz will likely be in Peter Nowak's starting eleven.
Nowak will have a full complement of players to choose from as the Union are healthy to start the season. Sebastien Le Toux had an MRI on his ankle early in the week, but he should be fully fit tonight.
On the flipside, Houston will likely be without Brian Ching, who is battling a hamstring strain. It's disappointing that he likely will not play as I was looking forward to seeing how the Union handled a player who is as good in the air as Ching.
Without Ching the Dynamo will rely on Dominic Oduro, Jason Garey, and rookie Will Bruin, who was drafted eleventh overall in 2011 MLS SuperDraft. Brad Davis is the string puller for the Dynamo in the midfield. He racked up 12 assists last season, which led Houston.
Ruiz, Le Toux, Mwanga, and the rest of the Union will be facing Tally Hall, an inexperienced goalkeeper who will be making just his sixth career start. Hall takes over for longtime Dynamo keeper Pat Onstad, who retired to become the goalkeeping coach for D.C. United (only to unretire and assume a role as a player/coach for Ben Olsen down in D.C.). Union fans are well aware of how young goalies can struggle, so it will be paramount for the Union to test Hall often.
With all of the new additions Peter Nowak has much more flexibility in terms of shape/formation. His back four will likely consist of Jordan Harvey, Danny Califf, Valdes, and Sheanon Williams. Roger Torres, Justin Mapp, Carroll, and Le Toux are the most likely midfield candidates (perhaps deployed in a diamond formation with Le Toux up at the top). Ruiz and Mwanga should combine together up front.
Regardless of formation the Union should be a better and more organized side as compared with last year. Looking back, it's amazing that Toni Stahl and David Myrie started the opener in Seattle last season. Yes, that happened.
Danny Califf picking up a yellow card a minute into that Seattle game happened as well. Here's hoping they've figured things out and don't go down a man 41 minutes into the opener like they did last season (oh, Toni Stahl).
One final housekeeping note: With Vancouver and Portland entering the league Houston, at least for the time being, has moved to the Eastern Conference.
Final Score Prediction: I may be caught up in the excitement of opening night, but is it asking too much for the U to pick up a road win AND keep a clean sheet tonight? I think they come out and set the tone for the entire season tonight. Union Win 2-0.
The Toni Stahl Memorial Union Player Most Likely To See Red: Purely out of habit I'll go with Califf.