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After giving up three goals in consecutive losses to Santos Laguna and FC Dallas, is it too early to press the panic button on this season? Look inside to find out.
There's no easy way to say this without using a clichéd quote from Jack Swigert, so I'll skip that part (but not before clearing the record - the phrase isn't "Houston, we have a problem," it's "Houston, we've had a problem."). It's obvious to fans that for some reason, there are problems for the Houston Dynamo.
Most glaring, to me at least, is the porous backline. Going back to last year's MLS Cup final, the Dynamo have now given up three goals in three of their last five competitive matches (Interestingly enough, all three were away matches - in the two home matches, the Dynamo haven't conceded a goal - but that's for another post). This is a back four that helped keeper Tally Hall set a club record with twelve clean sheets in the 2012 regular season. Sure, there've been some subtractions (Geoff Cameron, Andre Hainault) and additions (Mike Chabala, Anthony Arena, Eric Brunner), but there's been a solid core of Corey Ashe, Bobby Boswell, Jermaine Taylor and Kofi Sarkodie starting most of the matches. Our defenders have proved time and time again that they're solid players - enough so that many fans were willing to overlook the fact that the front office let Hainault walk in the offseason.
Is the back line the Dynamo's biggest strength on paper? Undoubtedly not. Yet for all appearances, nobody felt that this unit would give up six goals in two matches - most of them on poor positioning or uncharacteristic mistakes. Were there some goals courtesy of the referee? Almost certainly so - a goal by Santos Laguna from a penalty, goals off free kicks, and a missed handball call against FC Dallas' Kenny Cooper among them - but if you're blaming these losses solely on the judgment of referees, you're delusional. Most, if not all of these goals were created by defensive lapses and errors. All of the goals off of set pieces merely exacerbate the problem.
Whatever you may think of the side that's across the pitch from the Dynamo, you have to remember that they're all professionals. They make a living playing this game - and if you make a mistake, chances are they'll make you pay. Maybe not all of the time, but enough that it hurts. That's how matches are won - not just by doing all of the right things, but by forcing your opponent to do just enough things wrong to help you out. To paraphrase something that Herculez Gomez said in his second interview, every mistake we made didn't stand alone. They were forced, and they were capitalized upon.
Defensive lapses happen. It's part of the game - nobody's going to sit here and argue that they aren't. Supporters of every side in every league around the world can rattle off a list of matches that were lost because of one of their players' mistakes (and make no mistakes, it's almost always the losses - I've found that few remember the wins that come out of opponents' lapses). I'm not going to stand here and tell you that our defense is perfect, that they're not going to give up anything, or that they're not going to make stupid mistakes every once in a while. And if I ever did this, you'd all know it was time to have me committed, because the idea alone is insane.
And while the suddenly egregious defense could be covered up by our offense, that hasn't really happened. With Calen Carr out with a torn ACL and Macoumba Kandji let go to ply his trade in Greece, the Dynamo were left with perennial reserve Cam Weaver to complement Will Bruin up front. To their credit, the Dynamo went out and brought in new strikers - resigning Brian Ching for his swan song, drafting the speedy Jason Johnson and trading for proven striker Omar Cummings. Unfortunately, the Bruin-Cummings pair got off to a rocky start when Cummings got injured during the preseason. Taken alongside Weaver's hamstring injury and all of the sudden, the Dynamo find themselves with very few strikers. Ching is proven, but at an age where it's apparently accepted that he wouldn't be able to start every match, and Johnson is raw talent, in need of refining.
Every problem has a solution, no matter how unsightly it may be. Dominic Kinnear's was to deploy what is basically a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1, with midfielder Giles Barnes playing almost as a trequartista, the free-roaming playmaker slotted between the midfielders and the lone forward. I'll admit it, I have a problem with this formation - and it isn't necessarily Barnes (though he did have that "Seriously?!" moment in Sunday's match against FCD). In this case, my problem with this formation is the isolation of Will Bruin. The young striker can score - he proved that last season. But his scoring came almost exclusively while the Dynamo were utilizing a 4-4-2 formation. When they switched to a 4-3-3 mid-season, they started winning matches again - but at the cost of Bruin's scoring. In a formation utilizing only one forward in the box, his production levels dropped sharply. Lo and behold, though, when they switched back to the 4-4-2 late in the year, Bruin started scoring again.
This was the knowledge that had prompted the front office to make a move for another proven forward like Cummings, yet with Cummings injured, Kinnear has been forced into a formation that doesn't utilize all of his players to the best of their abilities. This isn't anybody's fault except that of Fate. You have to play the hand you were dealt, and for Will Bruin, it probably is starting to look like a pair of deuces.
For it's part, the midfield has been looking fairly good - much like the strength that many felt it would be. Aside from the own goal in the D.C. United match, every goal scored by a Dynamo player has been scored by a midfielder. If there's a problem in the midfield, it's in that final third - as much trouble as Bruin has as a lone forward, he hasn't seen very many balls into the box for him to even try to turn in to opportunities, much less goals.
All in all, while the situation may seem somewhat dire at the moment, remember: we are only three weeks into the season. These are kinks, and hopefully they'll be fixed soon enough. Cummings is back to training with the first team, and I suspect that if he's not in uniform for the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps this Saturday, he will be against the San Jose Earthquakes a week later. The addition of a second true striker should help spark Bruin, and turn this duo into a big threat.
The defensive problems aren't so easily fixed, I think. Once Brunner gets himself fully integrated, it'll help with the depth, but the uncharacteristic lapses will probably only be fixed with time. It was my opinion going into the season that the defense was the Dynamo's biggest weakness - and that I thought that even saying that, it would still be a relatively strong unit. I'm not too sure that the play so far has proved me right, but I do know that we have Dom Kinnear, and I trust that he can turn this around. Between the first two weeks of league play and the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, the Dynamo are 2-2-0 through three weeks. There's no reason to panic over that record - though if the sloppy play continues into April and May, it may be time to press that button.