The Houston Dynamo are in need of a statement game coming off a poor 4-1 defeat to the LA Galaxy which was a signifying moment of the season following a few lack luster matches previously. While the Dynamo remain one of the top offensive clubs early into the season, they're also one of the most porous on the defensive end. Today they'll play the runners up to the MLS Cup, Columbus Crew SC, who are underperforming at a similar rate as the Dynamo. They currently sit 9th in the Eastern Conference with the same record as the Dynamo and they are looking to re-establish themselves as top level competition in the league.
In our preview of the match we discussed how the game means a lot for Houston regardless of the opponent. It's our way of responding to poor performances and Columbus stands in the way. Still, we wanted to dig deeper into our opposition this week so we spoke with Patrick Murphy of Massive Report to gain insight on his club's early struggles to understand the opponent we hope to gain confidence from.
Dynamo Theory: Columbus Crew SC is the reigning runner-up to the MLS Cup, but currently sits in 9th place in the Eastern Conference. Where do the early struggles of the Crew lie?
Massive Report: So far, it's been adjusting to having a target on their back. This team has risen to a successful place rather quick and some of these players haven't dealt with the pressure of that too well early on. There are quite a few young players on this team, so it's just getting them to understand that you have to bring it every week when teams are so focused on beating you.
On top of that, Gregg Berhalter's system is not a surprise any more. I talked to the Crew SC head coach about that this week and he discussed that at times over the first season or so of his tenure, he was a little stubborn to make tactical changes as the players learned his system. As teams have formed a blueprint on how to manage the Black & Gold's possession, attacking style under Berhalter, he's had to start to make some changes. We've seen that at times this year and it was most useful last weekend when midfielder Wil Trapp played more forward instead of dropping back and New York City FC didn't expect that.
The final thing I will say comes across as an excuse, but is a valid one. Columbus played four of its first five contests on the road, which is never easy for any team. Then take into account that they went to Portland to start the season, then Dallas and Montreal. Throw in a rivalry game at Chicago and you've got four pretty difficult away games to begin the year. The surprising result was the home loss to the Philadelphia Union, but looking at how Philly is doing since then, maybe it wasn't a terrible loss.
DT: Obviously Crew SC has high expectations given last season, but what would be considered a successful year and what would be considered a failed season under Berhalter?
MR: A successful year would be another deep run in the MLS Playoffs. I'm not sure that it would require another MLS Cup Final appearance, though that would be a welcome trip, but making another push. At this point though, I think fans just want to see this team string together a good series of games and start to climb the standings. The supporters are certainly frustrated with the start to the year because, as you mentioned, the expectations are high and the belief is this team can make another run.
A failed season would be missing out on the Playoffs. Berhalter set the standard in year one and raised the bar in year two. This is a team that has too much talent not to get things together and at least finish in the top six in the Eastern Conference.
DT: For fans not familiar with Columbus, what are some players to keep an eye on and what makes them effective in Berhalter's tactics?
MR: Kei Kamara is the name that comes to mind first, but Dynamo fans are familiar with him. With that said, he's a different player than he was during his last stint in MLS. In Berhalter's system, he's blossomed as a target forward with the freedom to interchange positions with his attacking mates.
Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram are two of those attacking players, along with Federico Higuain. The two wingers, Finlay and Meram who are now both internationals, are former forwards with abilities that make them work on the outside. They typically aren't traditional wingers, tucking inside and doing a lot of the offensive work, but they perform well with Berhalter's system where the wing backs provide the width more often than not.
Speaking of wing backs, watch out for Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful. Francis was a All Star a year ago and Afful has the potential to be this season after joining late in 2015. These guys are both very good attacking options and deliver dangerous balls into Kamara and company. So far this year, the two are yet to both put in a good 90 minutes in the same match, but it looked much better last week against NYCFC. Afful dealt with a calf issue this week and is listed as questionable, but Berhalter said he should be good to go come Saturday.
Harrison Afful - Tyson Wahl - Michael Parkhurst - Waylon Francis
Ethan Finlay - Mohammed Saeid - Wil Trapp - Justin Meram
For my answers to Patrick's questions please check out Massive Report!