Before the match preview, or along with it, you can catch audio of Nelson Rodriguez's media roundtable over at the Fire Confidential Live podcast page.
Now for the match.
What Are They All About? Houston Dynamo Preview
Sweet Home Chicago. After an extensive road trip that saw the Chicago Fire traverse all over North America in the comfort of unchartered flights the team is coming back to the familiar confines of Toyota Park on Saturday to face the Houston Dynamo. They do so on the back of three straight defeats. A hard fought battle in Vancouver, one of the worst performances of the season in New England, and an impressive but faltering attempt in New York have been the capstone to the worst ten match start in team history. A charter did get them back home to Chicago.
Although they will be almost a third of the way through the season after Saturday’s final whistle it may still be too early to say good bye to playoff hopes. However, the front office’s goal of establishing Toyota Park as a formidable fortress and the improvement of a new system and integration of new personnel is very relevant to that fate. Chicago is still just six points outside of a playoff position with games in hand but those favorable conditions will mean nothing if they can’t get the ball rolling against Houston.
The Dynamo are struggling themselves and while head coach Owen Coyle asserted that neither side of this weekend’s fixture deserves to be at the bottom of their respective conferences given some of their performances, that is the harsh reality. This will be a scrappy match and a must win for both sides. Before you know it, it will be October. The time for teams to throw their name in the playoff ring is now. Will Chicago end their recent woes with a victory at home, will Houston grab their first three road points of the season, or will the MLS Gods gift viewers with another drab draw?
Houston Form Guide (Last Five Matches): W-L-W-L-L
Previous Match: A 1-0 win at Home against RSL.
Formation in the Last Match: 4-4-2: Willis; Beasley, Agus, Horst, Williams; Barnes, Alex, Clark, Wenger; Maidana, Torres
Route One football: Look, it isn’t pretty but it sure is effective sometimes. There are occasions where Houston can play some intricate passes with Cristian Maidana marshalling the midfield but for the most part Coyle pretends like it’s a rainy April morning in Scotland and instructs his players to dump the ball up field and see what happens. Their previous match against RSL was full of hopeful balls over the top that often resulted in the stretched Salt Lake back line fouling and conceding set pieces that were expertly delivered onto the head of a Dynamo player. The game winning lone goal came off of just such a long ball that was flicked on for Giles Barnes.
The match against San Jose saw the same tactic produce the Dynamo goal as well. Andrew Wenger’s attempt to collect a long ball resulted in a foul that was put into a dangerous area and pinged around the box before Ricardo Clark smashed a loose ball on the volley.
If you needed more evidence of their strategy the win over Sporting Kansas City came on the back of a Tyler Deric ball over the top which was flicked on by Cubo Torres before Barnes volleyed home for the opening goal. The second goal was the product of some nice inter play amongst the Barnes and Wenger but the ball found its way to the final third via a clearance rather than building from the back.
Aside from just Coyle’s want to play this style of soccer, Houston’s squad compliments this type of play. The keeper and the back line had an average completion rate of 67% in their last match and while that may not be very high on average, when you look at the fact that almost all of the passes are long balls it becomes much more impressive. The likes of DaMarcus Beasley and Sheanon Williams have a knack for passing and the forward players provide quite the outlet. Boniek Garcia and Wenger have the speed and endurance to chase long balls for 90 minutes while Will Bruin, Barnes and Clark have the physicality to hold up most MLS defenders. Another fun caveat is that Houston seems to have gotten more out of Alex than the Fire managed. He plays a deeper role but has had impressive passing and recovery statistics in that role which allow for the “win the ball and dump it forward” approach of the team. Chicago should know what’s coming but stopping it will be another matter entirely.
Getting Stuck In: If we’re continuing with the British euphemisms then we should mention that the Dynamo are not afraid to go hard in the tackle. They have received at least one yellow card in all five of their previous matches and usually manage to get a few more. Tyler Deric’s commitment to keeping out goals even when the play has passed him has led to two red cards for denying goal scoring opportunities in those five matches and the likes of David Horst and Sheanon Williams don’t have reputations for being nice guys on the field.
“Missing” Cubo Torres: While missing a DP striker may not be seen as a strength for most teams Houston’s Mexican international gives the likes of Gilberto, Anangono, and Puppo a run for their money. After scoring 22 goals in two seasons with Chivas USA, Torres hasn’t found the net in 17 appearances for the Dynamo across two seasons. In fact, he’s only registered one shot on target in that time. He is a constant thorn in Coyle’s side because of the expectation to see him on the field from both the fans base and an ownership group that want to see their faith repaid. However, when he plays he has been criticized as being out of shape, lacking drive, not gelling with players, and just being off of the mark when it comes to shooting. Torres was selected to represent Mexico at the U-23 Toulon Tournament in France and his absence could free up some space for the likes of Boniek Garcia who has largely been relegated to a bench role this season.
Weaknesses: The extended discussion of route one soccer above may tell you something about Houston’s weaknesses. They are largely a one trick pony and stopping service through the controlling of possession or the use of a high press has been effective against them all season. This is a side that hasn’t won on the road all season, hasn’t won against Eastern Conference opposition (their best result against Eastern opposition was a 3-3 home draw against New England on opening day), has allowed 19 goals in 11 matches, and to be quite honest hasn’t looked good even in their wins. A 2-0 defeat of rival Sporting Kansas City has been their biggest margin of victory and the match was marred by a poor display from their opponents and an overall lack of discipline in the match. Houston are a far cry from a success story, let’s take a look.
Which Dynamo should we be today?: Inconsistency has to be one of the biggest factors responsible for Houston’s standing in the table. There are times where they will fight for a hard earned draw, there are other times where they will outmuscle their opposition, and then there are times where they simply lay down and give up. They went from defeating FC Dallas 5-0 in the Texan Derby to allowing four goals against the Red Bulls. They scrapped for a 2-0 win against KC but went on to allow three goals against San Jose. You never know which Dynamo side will show up and their inability to string together a few good performances has been concerning. Again, we always stress that soccer isn’t played on paper (especially in Chicago) but the Fire could not have asked for a better opponent after a poor road trip.
Alright Lads, Let’s practice 10v11: We alluded to some problems with Houston’s defensive approach. They have finished two of their last five matches with just ten men on the field. One of those matches featured a 75 minute performance while down a man. The speed of Accam would have been useful but Igboananike and Calistri or possibly Morrell could provide some trouble for a slow pair of center backs and a trigger happy goalie. Sometimes playing with just ten on the field galvanizes a side, Houston lost both of those encounters. MLS has assigned PRO Referee Allen Chapman who has quite the reputation for brandishing both yellow and red cards. Chapman was the ref involved in Jay Heaps’ suspension and fine in 2015 for calling out a series of poor decisions in a New England loss.
Wait, They Don’t Play Long Balls?: A negative consequence of route one soccer and relying on set pieces is that it slows down the pace of the match for better or for worse. Houston’s defenders and defensive mids have been known to be a step or two behind opposition that wants to play with an intricate style of passing. Against San Jose (not MLS’s prime example of tiki-taka), Houston was caught out on all three goals. Ball watching, not clearing the ball quickly enough and simply being out paced and out played were symptoms of an outdated style of play and have been the cause of many a Dynamo defeat this season. If IF IF IF Chicago’s midfielders can pick up the passing pace, and if the Fire can utilize pace, then the Dynamo will struggle.
Prediction: Chicago will be exhausted from their away travels and they have not shown a regular ability to threaten in the attack, Houston will be cautiously starting off their own three match road trip in a city where they haven’t tasted victory since 2009. This fixture has ended in a draw in three of the last five meetings and this time will be no different. Two of the worst teams in MLS will eke out a 2-2 draw. Chicago dangles hope in front of its fans with two first half goals before DaMarcus Beasley and Jalil Anibaba come back to haunt their former club.