The first match in Houston Dynamo history without Dominic Kinnear or Owen Coyle as head coach ended in a 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Assistant coach Wade Barrett—acting as interim manager after Coyle was let go this week—praised the team's performance in the wake of adversity:
"The game works out the way the game works out," Barrett said, via the Dynamo's official website. "I was proud of the way that the guys really stuck to the game plan. That was the one thing we asked from them. We asked discipline and organization. We stressed that and we stressed how we wanted to play and what we wanted to do."
He's right, the Dynamo played well. They played solid defense, passed well, avoided turnovers and kept possession for long stretches of time in the attacking half. If David Ousted hadn't made a ridiculous diving save late in the game, Houston could have walked away with the full three points. Barrett strayed from Coyle's usual game plan—going with a 4-5-1 rather than a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1—and the result was a good road point from a top-tier Western Conference opponent. Whether or not it's sustainable depends on how they fare next week without the "fired coach" boost many teams receive.
Here are some key points from Saturday's match:
1. A new and improved midfield
One of the major adjustments Barrett made was in the midfield, particularly with the addition of Collen Warner at defensive mid. Warner had started just two games this year under Coyle, meaning that the Dynamo had mostly gone without a real number-six to protect the backline. As a result, Houston's ability to prevent teams from breaking through the middle of the field had become one of their main weaknesses; it was a vulnerability that Barrett took a step to eradicate on Saturday.
The 4-5-1 the Dynamo played—no, not a 4-2-3-1—was effective because the Dynamo basically played four central midfielders who had an attacking licence (neither Boniek Garcia nor Alex Lima really played winger) and employed Warner to stay home and protect the defense, allowing them to dominate the midfield offensively and defensively. The Dynamo completed 52% of their total passes in the middle third (173 out of 327) and were very effective defending in those areas:
Above is the midfielders' defensive map from Saturday's game. That is what you get when you play three box-to-box mids and a number-six. The Whitecaps' main playmaker and distributor, Pedro Morales, was suffocated by the numbers the Dynamo had in the middle, and thus was held without a key pass for the first time this season, apart from a 19-minute injury-shortened cameo in early April. Granted, his early dismissal could have played a part in this, but it remains an achievement to hold him as well as they did.
Garcia, Alex, Ricardo Clark, Warner and Andrew Wenger played compact and narrow to take away many of Vancouver's attacking opportunities, condensing the passing lanes to the point where the 'Caps spent much of the game passing the ball around in their own defensive half, resulting in the five defenders—the backline and David Ousted—getting almost half of the team's total touches of the ball.
The Dynamo, in turn, were able to spend a lot of time in midfield, building up play centrally and pushing large numbers into the attack. Even after Alex's red card, they were able to assert their dominance in those areas by constantly forcing turnovers and getting chances on goal, even if they didn't materialize into goals.
I hope this look, or something similar, returns when they face FC Dallas on June 2nd. There is still one major flaw, though:
Cristian Maidana, MLS's leader in assists last year, was acquired in the offseason to play as the number-ten the Dynamo have been missing. He was supposed to support Will Bruin and make plays from central areas, creating goals and increasing Houston's lackluster scoring. But for a variety of reasons, the Argentine has played in only 10 matches this season, often getting pushed out of the starting lineup because of Coyle's hybrid defensive midfielder tactics.
Against Vancouver, he was on the bench in favor of a trio of box-to-box midfielders. As explained above, that decision paid off. But there is a reason that the Dynamo only scored one goal: It's because they lacked creativity, playmaking, distribution ability and overall goal-creation. Although Alex, Garcia, and Clark will come up with scrappy plays in the box or, in the case of Clark, GOTW long-shots, none of them can consistently get the ball to the wing or to the forwards in order to get sustainable production on goal.
Sometimes, one of them will show shades of midfield creativity. It happened on Saturday, when Alex threaded a beautiful through-ball to DaMarcus Beasley on the goal. His pass was likely the reason it qualified for Goal of the Week contention:
But those kinds of passes—or any kinds of balls in the box, really—don't come very often. The three have a combined average of 1.06 key passes per season, and Boniek's 1.9 are the only reason their average makes it above one. Also, they have just 22 career assists between them over 16 seasons, six less than Maidana in his three MLS years. This midfield won't help the Dynamo put a ton of goals on the board, and it won't put a sufficient amount of pressure on the opposing backline aside from long shots and set pieces.
It's not a knock on those individual players. They just aren't chance-creators by nature. Bruin is suffering because of it:
That's a chart of the passes Bruin received against Vancouver, courtesy of Four Four Two's Stats Zone. He received 13—two of them from goal-kicks and one off a throw-in—and had just 15 touches in his 61 minutes. Also, notice how none of the passes he got were in dangerous areas, The midfielders didn't do a good enough job of providing him with chances on the ball and on goal, and the result was only two shots on target.
The Dynamo need a spark from somewhere on the field. Bruin is a target forward, the current midfield doesn't do much playmaking and Andrew Wenger isn't exactly the most dynamic winger out there. Maybe that means finding a way to put Maidana on the field, or maybe it means sticking someone like Leonel Miranda in the starting XI. Whatever the answer is, it will be the job of the interim coaching staff to figure it out. It will come.
One prominent feature of the Coyle regime was the hybrid number-six system. Rather than employ one single defensive midfielder—as most teams do—he decided to have two or even three players rotate in that position. This strategy often resulted in teams breaking through the middle of the field and creating odd-man rushes on the backline.
By putting Warner in the lineup, Barrett attempted to solve the issue. But the former TFC man has been a backup for most of his career and doesn't match up technically or tactically with many of the other defensive midfielders in the league, so it will be a test of time to see whether he will be serviceable in the position. If he isn't, they may have to either find someone in the transfer market or try and get Luis Garrido back into the fold, who appears to be getting better from that horrific leg injury he suffered last year:
Tengo mas ganas de las que te imaginas de salir adelante en el nombre de Jesus pic.twitter.com/YBCJKJrt3x— Luis garrido (@luisgarrido_19) May 27, 2016
If he is, well, the Dynamo have found the answer to one of their long-standing questions.