What Are They All About? Houston Dynamo
Decision Day. Although in recent years the league’s gimmicky approach to the final weekend of the season has been more reflective of an attempt to mirror European leagues than it has been a genuine day of drama, this round of fixtures has a different vibe. A renewed format of the top two finishers in each conference earning a bye week coupled with a bizarre final stretch of the season that sees ten of the twelve playoff seeds yet to be decided means that this weekend’s fixtures may live up to the hype.
The Chicago Fire will be facing the Houston Dynamo in the Lonestar state this Sunday (3:00 CT on NBC Sports Chicago) in the league’s only inter-conference match of the round. Both sides could finish as low as fifth in their respective conferences with Chicago being able reach as high as second and the Dynamo theoretically being able to finish third in the West.
Veljko Paunovic and Wilmer Cabrera’s teams are entering the encounter in similar form with Chicago having lost just once in the past seven matches and Houston streaking into the weekend on the back of a five-match undefeated run. No matter the outcome, the affair is sure to be a cagey one as both coaches will need to balance playing with reckless abandon with the very real possibility that they could be playing on the road just three days later. This conundrum will be especially evident in Houston’s tactical and personnel choices as not even a draw is good enough for them to move up in seeding. Will it be the Dynamo who continue their late season revival or will the Fire show that they do not need Schweinsteiger or Juninho to compete? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Houston Form Guide (last five matches): D-W-W-D-D
Previous Result: A 0-0 away draw against Sporting KC.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Deric; Beasley, Leonardo, Machado, DeLaGarza; Cabezas, Clark; Alex, Martinez, Elis; Torres
Strengths: An up and down season saw Houston lose just two of their opening ten matches of the season before winning just two of their next ten. Cabrera’s reclamation project has centered around a Latino revival in Houston, adding the likes of Albert Elis, Adolfo Machado, Leonardo, Romell Quioto, AJ DeLaGarza, Cubo Torres (return from loan), Vicente Sanchez, Juan Cabezas and most recently Tomas Martinez. Some things have worked incredibly well for that group, let’s take a look at where they might succeed this weekend.
I’m Gonna Hit the Gym After Practice, Brah: Although Chicago has not often been punished for it, they have continually struggled defensively against physical attacking opponents. The likes of CJ Sapong, Jozy Altidore, and Matteo Mancosu have left Kappelhof, Campbell, and Meira without answers. They’ve been out jumped, out positioned, outmuscled, and left bruised after those matches. As they look towards Sunday’s encounter Chicago will not be pleased to see the duo of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto on Houston’s roster. Not only has the pair combined for sixteen goals and seven assists on the season, their chemistry has grown exponentially on their international forays with Honduras, including a CONCACAF campaign that saw them earn a spot in a playoff against Australia. Speed, sharpness, and strength abound in both players and the Fire will certainly need to be practicing defending set pieces, direct crosses, and long balls in over the top this week in training. Just three weeks ago the Dynamo saw themselves rise back into a playoff position after headed goals from both Hondurans in the win over Minnesota. Lest we reduce them to typical CONCACAF brutalizers, both players have a knack for tidy finishing and are comfortable with the ball at their feet as well. They could be the difference against Chicago.
Turn and Go: Perhaps the biggest struggle for the Dynamo over the course of the last several years under the likes of Owen Coyle and Dominic Kinnear was their inability to play an attractive style of soccer. They built a beautiful stadium with a growing fanbase and yet they could not get away from route one soccer, an approach that became futile somewhere around the mid-1980s. Cabrera’s first objective was not necessarily to build a championship winning side as much as it was to string together some watchable soccer. The Dynamo have come along by leaps and bounds under his tutelage, implementing a style based on absorbing pressure in tactically organized lines before springing on the counter.
Aside from the above mentioned Elis and Quioto, one-time Fire player Alex has shown a unique aptitude to unlock the opposition on the counter. He is having a break out year in terms of his prior MLS history. He has only notched two goals but his ten assists put him at the top of that category for the Dynamo. He still has the legs to move in transition, passing ability, and an especially dangerous long-distance shot. When you add in the fact that they have a double pivot in the holding midfield spots that allow them tow transition quickly, and the overlapping capabilities of Remick and DeLaGarza, this Houston side is among the best counterattacking teams in a league that prides itself on such tactics.
Everything is Bigger in Texas: The cliché saying applies to their home win column as well… The Dynamo have lost just once at home this season, a slim 1-0 defeat to Colorado that came off of a mental lapse in the ninety-third minute of the contest. They haven’t drawn much either, notching just four ties on the season. All of that means that Houston has left opponents returning home empty handed on eleven occasions, the best such total in the Western Conference and the fourth best across the league. Whether it’s the heat, the travel time, the atmosphere, or gorging on steak dinners, visiting teams cannot seem to get going at BBVA Compass Stadium. They often look lethargic from the start and completely exhausted by the final whistle. If Chicago wants to rest players and save their energy heading into the post-season, this might be the match to do it in.
Weaknesses: We find ourselves in a precarious position with this week’s weaknesses section, flaws seem to go out the window along with logic when it comes down to the final day of the season. We’ll do our best to sift through the last several matches to show you where Houston might struggle.
Pass it Amongst Yourselves: The flipside to the aforementioned lightning paced counterattacks exhibited by the Dynamo is that they have no interest in possessing the ball. They have been on the wrong end of possession stats throughout the season, including barely reaching above a 40% possession average over the last five matches. On one hand, they have shown that possession statistics are meaningless when you can win without the ball, but on the other, Chicago has become more adept in preventing the counter in recent weeks. Teams figured out the Fire’s strategy right around the Gold Cup break and it cost them dearly for eight weeks of the season, but they seem to have adjusted tactically in recent weeks. Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent’s forays forward have been more calculated and the return of Joao Meira to full health along with Kappelhof’s consistency at the back means that there may be periods where possession could signal relief for Houston.
The problem is that not only do they not have the tendency to win possession, they do not have the personnel to implement it. Neither Juan Cabezas nor Ricardo Clark are the type of holding midfielders that will allow you dominance at the center of the pitch. They can win the ball back and put you into transition but they have nowhere near the command offered by the likes of McCarty. Additionally, Tomas Martinez’s transition to MLS from Braga has been reminiscent of the struggles that saw him depart Portugal after just a year. The River Plate academy product and formerly touted senior team member is flashy and calm in the final third, but no Enganche wants to dig in and help in his own half, something that might be called for on Sunday.
Lastly, Cabrera has tinkered with the team a lot in recent weeks but we don’t see the likes of Vicente Sanchez (going on 38 he rarely plays for more than 60 minutes), Eric Alexander (MLS role player), or Boniek Garcia (unsuccessfully tucked inside against NYCFC) competing in a messy midfield battle either.
Please Don’t Bring Accam off the Bench: Although Houston’s back line boasts some MLS veteran’s that will certainly calm nerves and help guide the team in the playoffs, the reality is that they have struggled against speed throughout the season. If the Dynamo opt for Dylan Remick and AJ DeLaGarza on the flanks of the back four, they leave Machado and Leonardo exposed in transition. Similarly, if Beasley starts instead of Remick, his positioning does not often make up for his lack of pace. With an average age of thirty-one and a handful of surgeries between them, Houston’s center back pairing is not equipped to deal with either Nikolic’s savvy runs or Accam’s bursts of speed. Nelson Rodriguez’s revelation on Wednesday that Accam’s nerve damage does not impact his play—it merely affects his comfort levels—another substitute appearance from the Ghanaian could be a turning point in this encounter.
We’ll Take the Loss: While we are in no way suggesting that professional players think in this manner, it perhaps behooves the coaching staff to be realistic in their chances of achieving anything from Sunday’s match. Houston’s potential win on Sunday would need to be coupled with either a Seattle loss to Colorado or an RSL victory over Kansas City for them to earn home field advantage. Given the strength of both KC and Seattle and the struggles of their opponents, Cabrera needs to ask himself if having his players gassed at the end of the 90 minutes only to play again on Wednesday is worth the hassle. Outside of the striker position his bench is not very deep and the Dynamo have not won two matches in a seven-day period all season… If he allows some of the second-string players a chance to prove themselves, the worst case scenario is that his first team is well rested and ready to go in their midweek matchup. It seems as if the ludicrous MLS playoff format will be as much about off field decisions as it is about the play on the field, this may be one situation where Chicago benefits from the stark reality of their opponent’s limits.
Prediction: You’ll get one more serving of Kool-Aid from us here at Fire Confidential. Chicago 3-1 Houston. Nemanja Nikolic has his sights set on the Golden boot and the Fire will want to give themselves every possible chance of finishing second in the East to earn some much-needed rest and recovery time. Nikolic with a brace, Dax McCarty with a volley, and Jalil Anibaba with a consolation goal in stoppage time (assisted by Demarcus Beasely).