Judging from recent comments on this site, not many fans have a lot of hope for the Houston Dynamo this season. I can agree that they have plenty of hard-to-solve problems, but I'm not so sure if I'm ready to hit the panic button yet. After all, the Dynamo aren't that far removed from a 5-0 victory against the current best team in the league.
I will never say an April MLS match is a "must-win" game, but I can cede that Houston have to start getting points, and fast. At least a point in Columbus wouldn't solve everything, but it would be a step in the right direction.
1. Crowd the box
Early on in the season, when Columbus Crew SC took two points from five games, there was a formula that was developed on how to beat them. It happens with many young upstart teams: They find success one year with a talented roster that appears unbeatable, but at the beginning of the next season, after coaches had time to figure out how to overcome them, they fall hard. Whether or not they rise above this is what makes or breaks a dynasty.
That's why the world's top managers—for example, Arsene Wenger or Pep Guardiola—are as successful as they are: They're always adapting to the next new tactic or technique thrown at them, and figuring out how to use it to their advantage. Will Gregg Berhalter be able to do that? The answer to that remains to be seen, but it will be a question lingering in the minds of Crew fans for weeks and months to come.
His first challenge, a year after getting hot late and almost winning an MLS Cup, was thrown at him first by the Portland Timbers and later by clubs like the Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact: Teams would stack men in the central area of the box, where big, strong number-nine Kei Kamara plays, and take away the passing lanes that Federico Higuain–the creative number-ten—used to pick apart backlines.
Take a look at this play from March 12th against Philly:
Kamara is marked out of the play, Ethan Finlay—the field-stretching winger—is in the central channel without much room to work, and Higuain is forced to play a hopeful ball to full-back Harrison Afful, who needed a skillful back-heel to create any sort of opportunity from the play (it would end up as a goal kick anyway). The Union are packed in, organized, disciplined, and designed to beat this Crew SC team. Everyone was worried about Columbus, wondering what was wrong and how it would be fixed.
As it turned out, it was simply adjustments by opposing coaches, and we were just waiting for Berhalter to figure out how to counter. Well, when they returned home last Saturday against NYCFC—languishing in last place—they came out with a new style, and won 3-2 with a well-rounded offensive display.
The Black and Gold played more to their strengths by pushing numbers into attack and focusing more on counter-attacks, rather than trying to set up shop in the final third. Higuain was still able to pick out incisive passes, but this time they went on the ground to Finlay and Justin Meram rather than in the air to a marked full-back. They spread the field and used Kamara's hold-up play and ability to draw defenders out of the play to find holes all over the field.
That was the last time we saw the Crew.
Owen Coyle will be tasked with figuring out how to stop it. He will need to see speed and good recognition from the full-backs as well as defensive help from the wingers—because Finlay and Meram will get behind them constantly—and, most importantly, the two center-backs and the one defensive midfielder (it's time someone takes that role) have to crowd the middle of the field and take Kamara out of the game, while also limiting Higuain.
It's a tough task, and requires everyone to do their part. But it's essential to three points.
2. Go at Trapp
Wil Trapp is one of the most promising players in the US national team pool thanks to his distribution ability from deep in midfield and advanced tactical awareness for a U-23 player. He's a key cog for Columbus, but there is one weakness that could be exploited.
Trapp, if he gets beat, often is bested by superior physicality and/or athleticism. Will Bruin, who hasn't made much of an impact at striker recently, should be given opportunities to go 1-v-1 with the Homegrown player, and try to use his larger frame to open up holes elsewhere. If Tony Tchani doesn't play—he is currently listed as questionable—there would be even more room to run if Trapp is taken out of the game by Bruin.
3. Pressure Clark
I'm sure everybody remembers this:
Steve Clark has a disturbing tendency to keep the ball for way too long and either give it away or have to knock it out of bounds. He hasn't fixed the weakness since then, and we're just waiting for the next time the Crew are plagued by his blunders.
It's a subtle thing, but if the Dynamo put pressure on him, something good could come of it. It just might result in three points.