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Houston Dynamo vs. Real Salt Lake, match preview: RSL look to open season with third-straight win over Houston

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Real Salt Lake travels to Houston to take on the Dynamo in the first game of the regular season while speculation surrounds Mike Petke’s potential lineup decisions.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the day we’ve all been looking forward to for almost four grueling months: the first day of the MLS regular season. We haven’t seen Real Salt Lake play a meaningful competitive match since November 11, when they crashed out of the playoffs at the hands of Sporting Kansas City.

This weekend, RSL gets a brand new start. A clean slate. A shiny new apple. (That’s a thing, right?)

Mike Petke and the guys will travel down to Houston to take on the Dynamo in the first test of the 2019 season. We’ve talked a lot in the past about the curse of Texas, but that’s a thing of the past. RSL has now bested the Dynamo three times on their home field, with the most recent victory coming in late dramatic fashion last year as two stoppage time goals from Albert Rusnak gave the visitors the 2-1 win. That win completed the season sweep against Houston, as both meetings ended in a 2-1 victory for RSL.

Real Salt Lake

MLS: Mobile Mini Sun Cup-Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason roster moves

First off, let’s take a look at all the roster changes RSL made during the offseason, because there were quite a few.

IN:
GK - David Ochoa (homegrown)
D - Donny Toia (from Orlando City via Re-Entry Draft)
D - Erik Holt (homegrown)
M - Everton Luiz (on loan from SPAL)
M - Luis Arriaga (homegrown)
M - Justin Portillo (from Real Monarchs)
F - Sam Johnson (from Valerenga)
F - Tate Schmitt (homegrown)
F - Julian Vazquez (homegrown)

OUT:
GK - Connor Sparrow (option declined; now with Nashville SC)
D - Danilo Acosta (on loan to Orlando City)
D - Taylor Peay (option declined; now with Louisville City)
D - Demar Phillips (option declined)
D - Shawn Barry (waived; now with Tampa Bay Rowdies)
D - David Horst (retired)
M - Sunny (option declined)
M - Jose Hernandez (option declined; now with LA Galaxy II)
F - Ricky Lopez-Espin (option declined)
F - Luis Silva (option declined)

While the most of the main starters from last season remain intact, RSL seemed to replace some of the glaring holes they had in the lineup. Most notably, Designated Player Sam Johnson came in to bolster the attack and play as a center forward where we saw a rotating cast of players last season which mostly included Damir Kreilach, Corey Baird, and Luis Silva. Defensive midfielder Everton Luiz was also brought in to take Sunny’s place next to Kyle Beckerman, and Donny Toia will step in to fill the hole that Danny Acosta will leave this season.

Lineup mysteries

That being said, nobody really knows what the lineup will look like this weekend, as there are several players that will be fighting for minutes in the same spot. Aaron Herrera, after solidifying the left back starting position last season, will presumably be competing with Toia for that spot this season. The return of Tony Beltran begs the question: will Brooks Lennon continue to be the starter at right back, or will Beltran take back his position now that he’s healthy? At central defense, Petke is spoiled for choice with Justen Glad, Marcelo Silva, and Nedum Onuoha, who are all starting XI quality players.

With the arrival of Sam Johnson, who we assume will be taking priority at the number nine spot, nobody knows where Damir Kreilach will fit in this lineup. Will Petke move him back next to Beckerman and put Luiz on the bench? Will he be a direct backup to Albert Rusnak, after showing he can slot into the attacking midfield role last year? Or perhaps Rusnak will push out wide on the wing like we saw him do a few times in preseason while Kreilach steps into the middle? That would leave either Joao Plata or Jefferson Savarino without a starting spot, though. Or will we see something new like a two-striker system, with Johnson and Kreilach both up top in the middle?

Regardless, it’s a relatively good problem to have for Petke, when he has more than enough quality players to put out on the field. I suspect we’ll see a lot of tinkering throughout the first chunk of the season until he finds a configuration that works.

Absences

OUT: Jordan Allen (knee, out for season)

Projected lineup

(disclaimer: as discussed earlier, this might be the hardest lineup in history to project, but here’s my best shot.)
Rimando; Lennon, Onuoha, Glad, Herrera; Beckerman, Luiz; Savarino, Kreilach, Rusnak; Johnson

Houston Dynamo

MLS: Champions League-Guastatoya at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason roster moves

Again, let’s look at who’s in and who’s out after a full offseason with the Houston Dynamo.

IN:
D - Erik McCue (homegrown)
D - Chris Duvall (from Montreal Impact)
D - Andrew Samuels (SuperDraft)
D - Aljaz Struna (from Palermo)
D - Sam Junqua (SuperDraft)
M - Tommy McNamara (from NYCFC)
M - Matias Vera (from San Lorenzo)
M - Marlon Hairston (from Colorado Rapids)
M - Brad Dunwell (SuperDraft)

OUT:
GK - Chris Seitz (trade to DC United)
D - Conor Donovan (option declined)
D - Leonardo (option declined)
D - Adolfo Machado (option declined)
D - Dylan Remick (option declined)
D - Jared Watts (option declined)
D - Philippe Senderos (contract expired)
M - Arturo Alvarez (contract expired)
M - Luis Gil (loan expired)
M - Eric Alexander (lost in expansion draft)
F - Andrew Wenger (retired)
F - Mac Steeves (option declined)

Obviously, Houston had a somewhat busy offseason as well, although they maintained the bulk of their starting players, while bringing in a few key players to bolster the midfield and defense. They’ll still have attacking tandem Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis, who combined for a whopping 30 goals last season. Romell Quioto is also still in the mix, who contributed six goals during last year’s regular season.

Hoping for a better season

After their first-ever U.S. Open Cup championship in 2018, the Dynamo will hope to keep moving forward and improve this season after missing the playoffs by 11 points last year, finishing 9th place in the West. However, RSL fans have Houston to thank for the playoff berth last year, as Mauro Manotas’ 79th-minute goal in the final game of the season against the LA Galaxy completed a comeback from 2-0 down, claiming a 3-2 win which kept the Galaxy out of the playoffs and sent RSL in.

The Dynamo have already got some competitive games under their belt this year, winning both of their CONCACAF Champions League matches against Guatemalan side Guastatoya, with scores of 1-0 and 2-1 over the last couple of weeks. Manotas grabbed a brace in the home leg to send the Dynamo to the Quarter Finals which will start next week, as they’ll take on Liga MX giants Tigres UANL.

Keeping that in mind, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wilmer Cabrera choose to rest some of his top players for the opening game against RSL in hopes of having fresh legs for their midweek Champions League match-up.

Absences

OUT: Ronaldo Pena (suspended)

Projected lineup

Willis; DeLaGarza, Struna, Fuenmayor, Beasley; Ceren, McNamara, Vera; Hairston, Manotas, Quioto


Match info

When: Saturday, March 2, 2019, 4:00PM MT

Where: BBVA Compass Stadium — Houston, TX

Weather: 72 degrees, mostly cloudy

Broadcast: KMYU, KSL TV app (streaming), ESPN+ (streaming), ESPN700 (radio)

Referee: Armando Villarreal