The match between the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew SC could go down as one of the most uneventful and, to be completely honest, boring contests in MLS regular season history. After an 18th-minute red card to Tyler Deric set the Dynamo down a man—with Kei Kamara scoring the ensuing penalty-kick—the Crew kicked the ball around for 75 minutes while Houston sat and watched.
It was an intriguing tactical battle, though, and inspired more debates about Owen Coyle's in-game decision making, particularly his substitutions. The manager decided to put on two defenders with his final two subs—not making any sort of an attacking effort despite being down just a goal—and didn't give help to striker Giles Barnes, who ended up stranded the entire game. There are two sides to this argument, and we'll get into it later.
In the meantime, here are three things from the ugliest game of the season:
1. New lineup
Fans have been demanding a lineup overhaul. They got it:
The @GEICO starting XI: Deric; Williams, Rodríguez, Agus, Beasley; Wenger, Clark, Warner, Alex, García; Barnes © pic.twitter.com/cIcCTdCQw1— Houston Dynamo (@HoustonDynamo) April 23, 2016
It was a 4-1-4-1 with Collen Warner playing as a lone number-six—making his season debut—and Agus entering at center-back in place of David Horst. Giles Barnes got an opportunity at striker, Deric entered at goalkeeper and Sheanon Williams came in at right-back, while Boniek Garcia played wide left.
Before seeing it on the field, one thing was clear about this formation: It would be much, much more defensive-oriented than the 4-2-3-1s of the recent weeks were. Without a chance-creator in midfield—Cristian Maidana was benched—Coyle was banking on counter attacks and set pieces to get them goals. It didn't look horrendous after 15 minutes or so, but then again, it's hard to extract anything from such a small sample size.
When Deric was red carded, Warner was forced to be subbed off for backup goalkeeper Joe Willis, changing the formation to more of a deep-sitting 4-4-1. If Kamara hadn't buried that penalty, it's very possible we would be praising the Dynamo right now, because they were organized, disciplined and relentless defensively, shutting down the Crew attack.
The entire visiting team bunkered into their own half and cut off all passing lanes in the final third, condensing the game to the point where nobody could do anything to challenge the goalkeepers. It was a wonderful display of defense from the Dynamo; any team around the world playing with ten men and defending a lead should look to this as a blueprint for defensive success. Everything worked magnificently, and Columbus sputtered to the end without a significant attempt on Willis.
But there was one problem: The Dynamo didn't have a lead.
So though they played an awesome defensive game, they came out with nothing to show for it, because they put nothing into the attack despite chasing a lead. At some point, they should have pushed forward and earned more set pieces or forced a turnover in midfield, even if it meant sacrificing a man defensively. As a result, they leave MAPFRE Stadium with their fourth loss in five games.
The Dynamo's bunkering produced some interesting statistics:
The Crew completed 576 passes. 576! That is a ridiculous amount of passes, and it only gets crazier as 335 of those passes were made in the attacking half.
Columbus set up shot in that area and passed the ball around aimlessly for almost the entire game. They ended with 73.4% possession because of it. It was comparable to the USMNT's win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines last season, at least in terms of stats.
Houston need to do better. I don't care what the situation is; you can't give up that much of the ball.
The two substitutions Coyle made in the second half were both defenders. First, Abdoulie Mansally came on for Garcia and played as more of a second right-back rather than a winger. Then, Horst came on as a third center-back in place of right-back Sheanon Williams in the 75th-minute, meaning the Dynamo basically played with five or six in the back.
The two subs may seem questionable at first, but each did have a deeper purpose. Mansally was brought on to improve the counter—he's considerably faster than Boniek—but also shore up the defense, which was under growing pressure from the Crew. Horst would make sure Columbus couldn't net the deciding goal—how could they, with three center-backs in the middle?—while providing another big body in the box on set pieces, which surely would be their only chance at squeezing out a goal.
Coyle had a strategy in mind and put the right personnel on the field to execute it. Sure, it didn't work, but there are times where you can't blame the manager. We're still waiting to see that new 4-1-4-1 formation in action for longer than 15 minutes, so I think everyone should reserve judgement on Coyle until we see that he really does have a long-term fix for the Dynamo's multitude of problems.