The match between the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew SC wasn't the most entertaining we've seen this season—far from it—but it should prove to be a learning experience for this team, which is still figuring out how it fits together.
The dysfunction is apparent, but when Houston sat deep and protected their goal while playing with ten men, they showed that they do have the ability to play good, compact defense. They were organized around the box and stayed disciplined, playing in their designated areas and keeping the Crew from making any sort of incisive pass.
It's not clear whether it's something they can keep up—at some point, they're going to have to play offense—but there were some encouraging signs. There was one instance early in the second half that illustrated those signs.
Here's what happened:
The play begins with Wil Trapp on the ball in midfield:
The Dynamo's 4-4-1 formation is clearly shown in this still shot. The back-four is in a line at the top of the 18-yard box, with the two central midfielders—Ricardo Clark and Alex—in front of them. Boniek Garcia and Andrew Wenger, the two wingers, are on the opposite sides of their fellow midfielders, while striker Giles Barnes is out of the picture.
Trapp (circled in gold) appears ready to make a pass backwards, because Clark was condensing the space between him and both Justin Meram and Kei Kamara, who were in threatening positions. This is something the Dynamo did very well, and it was the reason why the Crew failed to muster anything on goal.
The key for Houston after this pass is moving as a unit rather than having everybody bunch up next to the ball. Believe it or not, that's something they have done at points this season. Not this time, though.
Mohammed Saeid (circled in gold) receives the pass from Trapp, who takes a place slightly farther up the field. Wenger (in orange) takes a step forward to be the first defender on Saeid, who takes his first touch in the direction of the space Wenger vacated. Left-back Waylon Francis is there, having pushed up in support of the winger Meram—who takes up a place in the left-central channel.
Dynamo right-back Sheanon Williams sees the play and runs over to the Trinidian even before the ball leaves the feet of Saeid. This early recognition was missed while Jalil Anibaba played in Williams's place.
Williams does a great job of keeping the defensive line while moving out of position. This is important because it discourages the early cross from Francis, as Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain—the two main targets if a cross was played in—are both offside at the current moment.
Francis controls the pass and surveys his options, quickly noting Wenger's presence, which takes away the back-pass to Saeid. He likely thinks about the cross—it appears that Meram (top of the screen, first orange line) is too—but realizes it wouldn't be a good idea with the Dynamo's tight marking and high defensive line. Ethan Finlay (13) is not wide open; it just appears so because his marker is out of the picture.
The second observation Francis makes is likely the space to his right, which is open beyond Williams. But the Dynamo defender notices that as well, as he takes a good angle to the ball and cuts off that option. Not much for Francis to do right now, besides a reset of play. He's the kind of player who is always looking for something offensively, so that likely isn't in his mind.
Francis faces up on the defender in front of him, looking to get past him 1-v-1. But Williams isn't letting that happen, at least judging from his current position, and Wenger (11, circled in orange) is close enough to be considered a second defender, thus eliminating Francis's chances at finding a hole, barring some sort of Messi-esque display of skill.
His best option is a ball back to a now-open Saeid, or possibly back to Trapp (20) who is in a better position to pick out a pass. The Crew are set up for a ball in the box; just look at the cluster of players circled.
Francis experiments with some scissor moves and makes a feeble attempt at beating Williams, but quickly comes to his senses and makes the simple pass to Saeid. The Swedish midfielder (circled in gold) knew the opportunities in the box, so he didn't hesitate in taking a touch and driving one in the air.
Meram and Kamara make runs—textbook ones, right to the area between the penalty spot and six-yard box—but Dynamo center-backs Raul Rodriguez and Agus see them and begin to track them.
Higuain (standing open at the top of the box) seems at first glance to be a concern, but upon further inspection, it appears that he is not. He would be open for a second ball or rebound should a weak clearance be made, but Clark and Alex can easily get back and mark him. At this point, he would only be an issue if the ball came directly to him, and that won't happen.
The cross from Saeid falls a bit short. Kamara (in gold) comes back for it without many options. It's hard to bring it down and control it with the trajectory of the ball and a defender right on him; a deflection through to Meram wouldn't work because the ball is too low; and short pass to Higuain is tough to do given the circumstances. Theoretically, it's possible, but it's easier said than done.
Kamara doesn't exactly have a ton of time to react, so he makes a rash decision:
Kamara decides to take a weak-footed volley with a defender standing right in front of him while falling backwards from the top of the box. Needless to say, it harmlessly bounces into Joe Willis's hands and the attack sputters out.
This entire sequence of plays was very, very well done by the Dynamo. That's not something we say all that often, but in this case, it's true. They kept their markers, condensed the passing lanes, closed down players quickly and with the correct angles, and, perhaps most importantly, kept their shape. The results were things like low-percentage crosses sent in by a defensive midfielder.
Purely defensively speaking, this was a great showing by Houston. They lost the game because they played this defense while down a goal, and never decided to put numbers into the attack. I doubt this is sustainable, but it's a sign that things can get better.