Preseason is over and it's officially game day for the Houston Dynamo in what seems like eternity even though the MLS offseason is relatively short. It's time to get back to the grind and compete in the Western Conference, something most media personnel don't think the Dynamo will be capable of doing. In our preview of the match, Justin outlined many of the stats from last season and how some of the teams have retooled themselves for a brand new season. We talked with Pat Murphy from SB Nation's Massive Report to get an idea about how the rebranded Columbus Crew SC have fared and what to expect in this week 1 matchup at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Dynamo Theory: On paper, Columbus Crew SC looks like a team that could compete for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The team has re-tooled itself adding players like Kei Kamara (a player Dynamo fans are familiar with). How has the team looked in preseason and is this team gelling already or are there still things that could use tweaking as the season goes on?
Massive Report: The preseason was a mixed bag of results. Crew SC dominated lower level clubs, but went 0-2 against MLS opposition, losing 3-1 in their preseason opener to FC Dallas and falling on penalty kicks to the Philadelphia Union (although that game was played in horrid conditions). Head coach Gregg Berhalter has stressed that results don't matter in the preseason and that he's liked what he's seen from his players. He's the expert, but I think the team struggled when pressed, which was an issue a year ago.
For the most part, the team is pretty gelled (is that a word?). Most of the core from last year remains, with new faces sprinkled in. The talk around preseason was how quickly they were able to focus on new things because most of the guys knew the system already.
Whether this means they will actually hit the ground running in 2015 is unknown. Last year they got off to the best start in team history before struggling to find the right group of players. If there's a major regression from Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, two of the team's top scorers and assist men a year ago, on the wings and the other players don't pick up the slack, this team could be searching for answers.
DT: When I see this Crew squad, I see a team built for attacking and pressing the ball. Kamara, Federico Higuain, and Ethan Finlay all stick out as dangerous players over the ball. What are some ways the Dynamo defense can neutralize these players from influencing the game?
MR: As I mentioned above, this team has struggled when they are pressed. The team likes to possess the ball and make the other team work hard to get it back. When the opposition plays high and their attacking players make it difficult, it caused problems last year for the Black and Gold (specifically against the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union). This style isn't easy for the opponent to maintain throughout a game, but it has proven useful against Columbus.
Although this involves the entire team defending and not just the defenders, it is the best way to neutralize the Black and Gold's attack. Stop it before it starts type of thing.
Last year, Houston had success against Crew SC using their size up front as an advantage, especially on set pieces. This year, Columbus has Emanuel Pogatetz and Kei Kamara, who are supposed to help on set pieces especially, so this may not work as well in 2015.
DT: The Columbus Crew made the playoffs last season but eventually fell to MLS Cup runner-ups the New England Revolution. What are some of the expectations around the Crew Camp about how far this team can go?
MR: I think it varies quite a bit to be honest. I think most people expect the team to make the playoffs again, but I've seen people predicting them to finish anywhere from fifth to first in the East.
I think most reasonable minds see them ending up about where they finished last year, with the potential to make a deeper run in the playoffs now that most players have postseason experience.
I think it will be a fun season for the Black and Gold. I could see them getting off to a slow start, as I don't believe the preseason went as smooth as the team is saying based on the games I saw. It'll be exciting to see it all kickoff Saturday!
Hernan Grana - Michael Parkhurst - Emanuel Pogatetz - Waylon Francis
Ethan Finlay - Tony Tchani - Wil Trapp - Kristinn Steindorsson (Justin Meram is suspended)
For my answers to Pat's questions, head over to Massive Report and check them out!