The Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls have started their 2016 campaigns in two very different ways.
The Dynamo, who came into the season simply looking to qualify for the postseason, managed a 3-3 draw against New England before obliterating Supporters' Shield favorites FC Dallas, giving them the title of highest scoring team in MLS through the first two weeks of the season. Eight goals scored in two games is impressive and all, but this week, they will have to try and continue that recent success without two of their main offensive contributors: Cristian Maidana and Giles Barnes, who both came off injured against Dallas. Nonetheless, Houston would be considered one of the hottest teams in the league if not for Ignacio Piatti and the Montreal Impact.
NYRB, who entered this year with expectations of challenging for another Supporters' Shield, have accumulated exactly zero points thus far, losing to Toronto FC and the Impact. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that they haven't produced a single goal in those two games, despite an attack that looks identical to the one that was so effective last year. Bradley Wright-Phillips hasn't been playing as well as he usually does at striker, the midfield hasn't created a whole lot of chances, and the two wingers haven't really been on their game. Those reasons are valid, but it really comes down to bad finishing, as the Red Bulls only managed to put three of their nine shots on target against Montreal. Jesse Marsch will be looking to resurrect that when they travel back to the confines of Harrison, New Jersey to take on the Dynamo.
You can come to whatever conclusion you wish about the above sentiments, but the truth is that the season is only two weeks old. Whatever good or bad thing a team is doing right now isn't likely to stick for a significant amount of time.
Anyway, here are three keys for the Dynamo against the Red Bulls:
1. Win on the wings
One of the main weaknesses New York have shown is a tendency to get too narrow in midfield. Often, Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella spend more time supporting in central midfield rather than finding space out on the wings, and while Kemar Lawrence does like to push up occasionally from his left-back position, the Red Bulls end up with a shape that allows opponents to exploit the space on the wing.
Here are NYRB's starter's average positions on the field against the Impact, courtesy of whoscored.com:
There are six players in or around the center circle. The only four that aren't are members of the backline. This kind of thing shouldn't happen, because a lack of width not only gives up space on the wings; it clumps up the midfield and gives the opposition space to run around you.
It's the same logic taught by your U-8 rec soccer coach. Don't all converge on one area, because you give up openings in other places.
The Impact took advantage of this. Here's a map of their key passes:
Six of their eight passes that led to a shot were made by wingers: Harry Shipp, Lucas Ontivero and Johan Venegas.
The Dynamo's Andrew Wenger has been arguably the best winger in MLS so far this season, winning player of the week after scoring a goal and assisting two others against FC Dallas. He and whoever replaces Barnes (likely Boniek Garcia or Leonel Miranda) have to stay wide and exploit the spaces given to them. This would, in turn, take away some of the magnitude of Maidana's absence, as less of an emphasis would be put on chance creation.
2. Pressure on the backline
The Red Bulls have made some avoidable mistakes at times this season. Although Gideon Baah–Matt Miazga's center-back replacement–has looked serviceable defensively, he and other defenders were a bit mistake-prone in Montreal.
Clearly, Mauro Biello knew this and he had his players pressing when New York's backline was in possession. They were able to create multiple chances from defensive bloopers in front of Luis Robles's goal.
Case in point: This goal from Dominic Oduro.
That error can't be made by Baah; it was the main reason for the goal. These kind of turnovers in bad areas consistently plagued the Red Bulls at the Stade Saputo, shown by this map of tackes, interceptions and recoveries in New York's defensive half made by the Impact:
The Dynamo have to put some pressure on the Red Bulls backline. Chances will come.
3. Chance creation
Last year, a lot of Houston's problems stemmed from a lack of chance creation. They solved the issue by acquiring Maidana, and he has mostly been a success these first two weeks, but they will have to play without him Saturday evening.
While it will help that they will be able to get out on the wings offensively, they still want to be multi-dimensional in the attack and will have to generate some chance creation centrally despite the absence of Maidana.
It remains to be seen who will replace the Argentine, but whoever it is will have to get something going from the middle of the park.