It's been proven that the Houston Dynamo have the ability to win at home. That's nothing new for them, and it's the norm in MLS. But on the road? They've struggled mightily over the last two seasons, and it's one of the major reasons why they've failed to make the playoffs last year. Inconsistency away from home has plagued the Dynamo in the past, and this season has been no different.
So even though they turned in a very good performance against a solid Western Conference opponent on Sunday, don't get too hopeful about their playoff chances (I'm sure none of you are, right?). At this point, they have to win on the road consistently to have a serious chance at playing in November, and I'm not sure how confident I am that they will be able to do that. It starts with three road games in Chicago, Vancouver and Dallas over the next three weeks.
If they can replicate what they did against Real Salt Lake, they'll be just fine.
One struggle on the offensive end this season for the Dynamo has been getting Cristian Maidana the ball in central areas and letting him pick out passes from more threatening areas. When he gets opportunities to do that, he is very good, but for the majority of this year, he's been stagnant in the chance-creation department.
Brought in to be a playmaking number-ten—and solely that, as he is by no means a goal-scorer, Maidana has struggled to get touches on the ball centrally where he does the most damage. That's evident in his passing map from the San Jose game:
He drops deep in midfield to help in possession and he drifts out to the wings to send in crosses. For whatever reason, he doesn't take up positions in the central channel. The result is much less production; he only has one assist this season.
But on Sunday Maidana was much more effective as he was able to find the ball in better areas. He found a ton of space in central midfield, especially on the counter, and took advantage of it. He finished with an incredible seven key passes, and had the ball the most of any Dynamo player. The Argentine made 53 passes on the day—more than any other player in orange—and many of them were in central areas:
He still took up positions on the wing, but for the most part, he stayed centrally, and clearly was at his best there.
That's what the Dynamo have to do. They have to do a better job of giving him the time and space to create opportunities, and provide service to the striker and the wingers. That's why he's in Houston, and it's how he's most effective.
But another part of their attack was even more effective against RSL:
2. Wing play
Against RSL, the Dynamo created most of their chances from the wings. Whether by sending in crosses, cutting into the central areas, or getting the ball to the top of the box, players like Andrew Wenger and Giles Barnes were very effective running down the wings, and RSL had trouble dealing with it all afternoon.
If you take a closer look at Maidana's passing chart above, you can see that he did a very good job of distributing the ball to wings. Often, Wenger and Barnes had opportunities isolated in the corner against Tony Beltran or Demar Phillips, and while too often they—particularly Barnes—didn't take them on 1v1, they were able to consistently get the ball in the box. They did that a lot.
This is a chart of their crosses (successful and unsuccessful) and key passes against RSL:
That's a lot of crosses. And yes, a lot of them were unsuccessful. That happens. But sometimes this happens:
Erick Torres should have finished that. But it's great combination play from DaMarcus Beasley and Barnes—who did things like that all game—and Cubo did a good job of finding an open area in the box.
RSL's defense (mostly) did well defending against the crosses once they got in the box, but there were times where the Dynamo found an open man, or got a good opportunity on a rebound, or even just earned a corner. David Horst hit a crossbar. Ricardo Clark missed an open header just wide. Wenger pounced on a deflected ball and smashed it into the stands. They ended up with nine corners total, and, as you can tell from Maidana's chart above, there were multiple that directly resulted in shots.
Things happen when you put balls in the box, especially when you do it patiently in build-up. In other words, it's less effective to blindly throw it in the box without some kind of possession beforehand. The Dynamo were much, much better at keeping the ball in the attacking third on Sunday, and slowly breaking down RSL's defense. They kept 52% of the ball—a large increase from recent games—and completed 265 passes in the attacking half, a major improvement compared to their 225 against San Jose and 189 against Sporting KC.
The result was more space, more numbers in the box, and thus more attacking chances. It allowed them to both make plays through the middle with Maidana and out on the wing with crosses and balls into the box. They attempted 17 shots, and although the finishing has to improve, they were very, very good offensively. It all starts with possession in the attacking third.
3. Defensive improvements
Impressively, the Dynamo's backline didn't allow a single shot on target the entire game. Real Salt Lake are talented offensively, so that's a massive accomplishment for a defense that has been among the worst in the league this season.
Agus and David Horst have developed a surprisingly good partnership in central defense, and the full-backs did a good job of pushing forward into the attack and supporting possession in the offensive half. That continued possession took some weight off the backline, which has directly led to improved performance.
Now, we see if they can sustain it.