What Are They All About? Houston Dynamo
Fragile at best. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost 3-0 on the road in Columbus against the Crew in what can only be described as a comprehensive demolition. Out shot, out possessed, and out coached, the Fire’s chances to rise above the red line for the first time this season disappeared into the Ohio air as Columbus claimed second in the East. The result exemplified the trajectory of both teams this season and was another rude awakening for Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez. This Chicago side is not only incomplete, as they both have admitted, it is slowly approaching the categorization of incompetent. Poor marking, poor finishing, and a complete lack of tactical understanding were evidenced on Saturday and there doesn’t seem to be any respite in the near future.
The Fire will host the Houston Dynamo this Sunday (3:00 PM CT at Toyota Park) in what continues to be a busy May schedule and they will be hoping to convince themselves that they’re still in the playoff hunt. It could be a sad reality check as a loss could see them end the weekend in ninth, potentially nine points behind the playoff pace. Even a win wouldn’t be good enough to catapult them into a post-season place, a reflection of their shortcomings on and off the field. Luckily for them, Houston is not entering this fixture covered in glory either.
Wilmer Cabrera and his charges have had an up and down season of their own which has included victories over teams much better than them on paper and losses to teams that may have looked like sure bets on the calendar. Perhaps most worryingly, the Dynamo’s inconsistencies have come on the back of them having yet to be seriously tested in their fixtures. Playing against a weakened TFC side, an LA Galaxy side in shambles, and an Atlanta side that had yet to get going is hardly the best way to notch victories, while losing to teams outside of the playoff picture is not confidence inducing either. Sunday’s match is shaping up to be a battle of the pretenders. Who will get to keep dreaming? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Houston Form Guide: D-W-L-W-D
Previous Result: A 2-2 away draw with Vancouver.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Willis; Wenger, Leonardo, Fuenmayor, Machado; Ceren, Alexander; Quioto, Martinez, Ellis; Manotas
Strengths: This is a Houston side that made the Conference Final last season and has largely kept that impressive squad intact. The pieces for success are there even if the results are not quite reflective of their ability as of yet. Ultimately, they are just one point out of a playoff spot with at least a game in hand on the teams above them, a clear motivating factor to play well in the Windy City. Let’s See where they might succeed on Sunday.
Lanza de Tres: Wilmer Cabrera’s utilization of a 4-2-3-1 is directly reflective of the attacking pieces he has at his disposal. The “front three” of Manotas, Quioto, and Ellis are responsible for eleven of Houston’s twenty goals on the season and the Dynamo’s play revolves around getting the ball into open spaces for Quioto and Ellis to chase down before playing it in for the lone striker. The pace of the wingers is impeccably matched by their own ability to finish well, allowing for Houston to keep the opposition caught in two minds when attempting to defend against them. Cutting inside is always an option for the Honduran duo if Manotas is unavailable for a pass or purposely stretching the centerbacks to create space for teammates. Brandon Vincent and Kevin Ellis might have their hands full in this encounter and they will need to be at their very best to avoid a second consecutive match of being overrun on the wings. Additionally, Manotas’ positioning is much better than that of Zardes (who notched a brace against Chicago on Saturday) so Kappelhof cannot afford to have another off day for the Fire. Additionally, both Kappelhof and Ellis sit on three yellow cards on the season and have shown they can be easily goaded into dangerous challenges. We wouldn’t be surprised if the pace of Houston sees them go up a man in this one.
Pulling the Strings: While Chicago’s search for an Enganche continues, Houston has continually shown an impressive ability to get deals done in that department. In last year’s summer window, the Dynamo acquired Argentine playmaker Tomas Martinez from Portugal’s Braga. At just twenty-three, Martinez was given a young DP contract and the reins to Houston’s attack. The success of the aforementioned spear of three is largely due to the youngster’s technical skill and vision. Coming up through the ranks of River Plate, Martinez was molded into a player that is not only comfortable with the ball at his feet but has the intelligence to get out of tough situations in an instant and has a clear understanding of how he is to function in Cabrera’s system. Three assists and two goals on the season are certainly an indication of things to come and Martinez will not easily be contained on Sunday.
Grab the Crutches: Things have gone from bad to worse for the Fire over the last several days as injury updates have become available on a number of players. A side that was not deep to begin with learned that Dax McCarty will miss at least the next two matches for Chicago with a hamstring strain, while Matt Polster’s continue knee rehab suffered a setback. Polster’s surgery could signal the end of his season. When you add in the absences of DeLeeuw, Mihailovic, Solignac and Bakero, not to mention the freshly returning Schweinsteiger and Lillard, the Fire barely have enough healthy bodies to form the matchday squad much less have their ideal eleven out on the field.
Weaknesses: Going from a conference final to eighth place in a shaky Western Conference is not ideal and clearly not accidental. There are some significant shortcomings to this Dynamo side and Chicago is built to exploit some of those weaknesses. Let’s see where Houston might struggle this weekend.
Mental Lapses: Perhaps the most noticeable weakness of this Dynamo side is that they continually fall asleep in crucial moments of the match. They’ve lost or drawn matches in which they’ve scored first, they’ve given up too many goals in the last ten minutes of matches, and they don’t seem to care too much about set piece marking. Both of their conceded goals against Vancouver at the weekend came from a lack of awareness on set pieces. They were caught arguing with the ref as a quick ball was played into the feet of Waston on the first, and then they left Waston (the tallest man on the field) unmarked in the box on the second. Similar marking was at fault in the run of play for both goals conceded against LA, and for one of the goals in the loss to Minnesota.
While poor defending is a continual theme in this league, Houston is showing themselves to be amongst the leaders in mind boggling moments. Although they invested in Venezuelan centerback Alejandro Funemayor in the offseason, Cabrera did put a single defensive player on the bench this past weekend, an indication of his preference of style. If Schweinsteiger is allowed to roam centrally in this fixture and get the ball to Nikolic’s feet, the Dynamo might be in trouble.
Uni-dimensional: When playing against this Houston side, you always know what you are in for. Cabrera is not a mastermind tactician. He sets his team up the same way week in and week out and focuses more on earning the trust of his players than he does on drawing Xs and Os on a board. The aforementioned strengths can be planned for and countered (at least in theory) if Paunovic approaches this encounter with equal simplicity.
Over the course of the last three matches, the Dynamo have consistently and constantly utilized Martinez to control the second third of the pitch. Unlike other playmakers who operate in the final third, Martinez functions as a deeper lying playmaker who looks to control the ball and stabilize possession before springing the attack. If Mo Adams and Tony Tchani can stop the ball from getting to the Argentine's feet or foul him regularly near the half way line, Houston’s attack will whither at the root. Neither Eric Alexander nor Darwin Ceren are creative in the way that Martinez is, and they have largely been tasked with winning the ball back in their own half and finding the River youth product. If Chicago force the duo to try to play a role they are not accustomed to and uncomfortable in, they will likely see the service to the wide players stifled.
The long balls over the top to Manotas that such a tactic would force, should be easily gathered by Kappelhof and Lillard given their physical advantages over the Colombian. This encounter will truly be won or lost in the midfield and this is a big test for Chicago's revamped midfield trio.
Prediction: We have not done a very good job of making predictions this season. However, given the inconsistencies present in this Fire squad, we continue to hold onto the reality that it's not our fault. Let’s go with an afternoon draw. Chicago 2-2 Houston. Nikolic and Schweinsteiger for the hosts, Alvarez and Beasley for the visitors.