Last year, after I joined this blog, I ran a few Panic Button posts, which detailed the playoff race and whether or not mass panic was entirely a good idea at the time. While the week after the season opener isn't a logical place to start panicking over the state of the season, we do have something more immediate that might necessitate panic.
Tuesday night marked the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals here at BBVA Compass, where the Houston Dynamo eked out a slim 1-0 lead over Liga MX side Santos Laguna. To me (as I have remarked elsewhere), it seemed a match of missed opportunities, and for various reasons. While the win at home was nice, it easily could've been larger. That being said, that's all in the past, and while there are reasons to be concerned about next Wednesday's return leg in Torreón, there are many things to be liked about the Dynamo's performance in the first leg.
We can start with the obvious heroes: Tally Hall and the Dynamo backline. Corey Ashe, Jermaine Taylor, Bobby Boswell and Kofi Sarkodie did everything that was asked of them, and then a bit more. Were they rocky? Definitely (a little more on that later), but in a tie where away goals are crucial, Santos didn't get one, despite a number of good chances and a slim edge in possession (51.8%-48.2%). Even when they made mistakes, they tended to make up for them a few seconds later (I'm thinking mainly about Sarkodie's last ditch clearance that almost certainly saved a goal in the 40th minute).
The Dynamo didn't exactly stifle Santos, but they did manage to frustrate them. The Mexican side is one that likes to utilize speed and good passing to come right at their opponents - but save for a few chances (mainly in the first half), that wasn't something that was really seen on Tuesday. On defense, the Dynamo did a fairly good job of closing down the attack routes. Sure, there were a few times that Carlos Quintero found himself with the ball behind the back four, but those were few, far apart, and most importantly fruitless. A good passing attack can carve up a defense spectacularly - but thanks to some stellar defending, that didn't happen here.
Also to take comfort in is the fact that Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo front office telegraphed their intent to take the Champions League seriously by fielding a starting XI that contained ten players who started in Saturday's season opener against D.C. United. Certainly the absence of a league match this weekend helped to allow this to happen - and we can give thanks to the schedulers of Major League Soccer for giving all three Champions League sides the weekend off, allowing them to concentrate on fielding the best eleven possible for the quarterfinals. We can't rely on this happening again if we advance (indeed, a glance at the Dynamo schedule shows that it definitely won't), so we have to hope that this gift is accepted at full value.
The starting XI that the Dynamo were able to field performed quite admirably - so much so that some commentators pointed out that they almost appeared to be in mid-season form. While I can see how their play might inspire people who aren't familiar with the men in orange to say that, those of us who consider ourselves Dynamo fans are generally a bit more critical. While the side played well enough to earn a win and continue their unbeaten streak at home, there were moments that you could tell that the regular season began last weekend. That being said, they performed well enough to take a lead into Torreón next week - but this tie is far from over.
On the flip side, the Dynamo's form could also become their undoing in Torreón. There were long stretches - especially on the attack - where the Dynamo looked much like they did on Saturday: potent until the end. With theoretical second forward Omar Cummings having been sidelined due to a surgery on his injured right knee, Houston has deployed in a nominal 4-4-1-1 (or 4-5-1) with Giles Barnes playing behind lone forward Will Bruin. While the addition of a player of Barnes' caliber is always a bonus, the net value might be decreased due to the fact that Bruin has generally struggled as a lone center forward (remember last season, when his goal production dropped off when the Dynamo switched to a 4-3-3 with two wingers and a center forward).
As of Thursday's training, Cummings is back with the first team, but I highly doubt he'll even dress for next week's match in Torreón, though I could be wrong. Andrew Driver, fresh from Scotland, was substituted into Tuesday's match despite only joining the Dynamo last Friday. Then again, Driver was already in mid-season form, something that Cummings is definitely not. Driver was at the center of what might be the play that would be most representative of that first leg - losing his footing as he tried to track back and receive a pass from Bruin that had been sent behind him. Had that chance not been missed (and I think most of that is on Bruin, not Driver), the Dynamo would've added a precious second goal just minutes after Brad Davis put the men in orange ahead.
Missed chances, however, were not just the Dynamo's domain Tuesday night. A poor clearance from Tally Hall in the 20th minute led to Santos forward Herculez Gomez receiving the ball right outside the box, but instead of taking a shot, he laid it off to Carlos Quintero, who fired it into the stands. Had Quintero's aim been true - or had Gomez tried his luck - Santos might've had an early lead (and an important away goal). That they didn't was all due to good fortune, which seemed to favor the defense.
A few minutes after Quintero's off target shot, Barnes was similarly gifted with an opportunity when Santos keeper Oswaldo Sánchez sent his clearance away from Bruin and straight into the Englishman's path. To compound his error, Sánchez was racing out to meet Barnes, who tried to chip one over the line. The chip was just off - not very far above the crossbar - but decidedly on the wrong side for the Dynamo. Barnes' luck was worsted, however, by that of Warren Creavalle, who four minutes earlier had inadvertently cleared Boswell's header off the Santos line - another play which was the norm Tuesday.
While some of these mistakes can be attributed to bad luck, I have little doubt that a side a bit more in form might have converted one or both of those - something that will be improved (though perhaps only minutely) with the week of practice between the two legs.
Both form and luck, however, will have to improve for next week, for they travel to one of the most formidable stadiums in the Western Hemisphere. Estadio Corona in Torreón is a nightmare for visiting teams - the Gibraltar to BBVA's Ticonderoga. While the Dynamo's 32 match unbeaten streak is very worthy of pride, Santos Laguna has been even more formidable in their home. Since the CONCACAF Champions League was started in 2008, Santos Laguna has played 19 CCL matches in Torreón. They've won 18 of those, the lone blemish a 3-1 loss to fellow Liga MX side Cruz Azul in 2011.
Not only do they win at Estadio Corona, they blow the opposition away. Even counting their loss, their goal differential in home CCL play is a staggering positive 51 (68 for, 17 against) - for comparison, the Dynamo's season goal total last year in MLS was 53. Most fans of MLS will remember last year in the CCL, where in the quarterfinals, Santos lost 2-1 in Seattle, then proceeded to smash the Sounders 6-1 in the return leg. They duplicated this feat against Toronto F.C., settling for a 1-1 draw in Canada while winning 6-2 in the second leg en route to a spot in the finals.
So while Santos Laguna has been known to score goals by the bucketful in front of their supporters at home, the Dynamo have never been a team that travels well. Yes, they can pull off a stunning upset away from Houston - the 2-0 victory in the 2011 Eastern Conference final against Sporting Kansas City comes to my mind - such a result is the outlier. They've gotten through ties before, but mainly because they can rack up a two or three goal lead in the first leg here in Houston and then settle back and weather the storm in the away leg.
I get the feeling that such an approach will not work down in Torreón. For one, the Dynamo have no room to maneuver with only a single goal lead, so that any single mistake could result in the aggregate being evened in the blink of an eye. Indeed, the only comforting feeling that I get out of a 1-0 result at home is the denial of any crucial away goals to Santos - meaning that if the Dynamo are able to steal even a single goal in Mexico (which seems likely), Santos would have to win by two goals to advance. Given past results, a two goal margin of victory is easily achievable for Santos, but it would add to the pressure facing the home side.
The facts don't seem to be in favor of the Dynamo. This is a side that doesn't generally travel well playing in against a side from a country they've beaten once in this competition - just the victory a few days ago. Santos Laguna personnel are all but salivating at the fact that they're going home only down 1-0. But there's no sense of panic coming from the Dynamo, either - which is a good sign. The fact that they managed to effectively shut down Santos once has to embolden this side as they travel to Torreón - and while it's highly unlikely that they can repeat the feat on enemy soil, they know that they can slow them down. And that, despite all the reasons we might have for pushing that orange panic button, means that many Dynamo supporters still have hope. And why not? Stranger things have happened.
You can press that button if you so choose, but I'm here to tell you that it's not completely necessary. At the moment, I'm probably a bit more than 50% likely to want to press it, but I'll hold off, because for every reason I see to panic, there's also a reason to hope.