The Houston Dynamo will certainly get plenty of attention for Sunday's clash with the Portland Timbers. The game takes place two hours before the Copa America final, so the ESPN audience will gain some pre-Copa viewers. A win would be great for the Dynamo, but that's never an easy thing to do against the Timbers.
Here's what they have to do to pick up the full three points:
1. Clog the midfield
MLS's best chance-creator, Diego Valeri, and arguably the league's best No. 9, Fanendo Adi, play on the same team. That's a scary thought for the rest of MLS, and it's one of the main reasons why the Timbers won their first trophy last season. Valeri floats around midfield picking out passes to wingers like Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla, while Adi muscles off defenders, holds up play and wins headers in the box. It's a deadly combination of skill and strength.
The Dynamo have to find a way to neutralize it. To do that, they'll have to put numbers in the midfield and try to deny space to Adi and Valeri. Force the Timbers to push the ball to the wings, and have Melano or Ned Grabavoy providing service instead of Valeri. Man-mark Adi, win second balls, and deny service to the Nigerian forward. The San Jose Earthquakes lost 1-0 in Portland on June 1st, but they provide a blueprint on how to stop the Timbers' talented attack.
Allowing just one shot on target (Portland's goal, which came off a set piece), the Quakes completely cut off service to Adi and created this passing chart:
Adi was able to do next to nothing around the box, and that's a credit to the Earthquakes defense. They surrounded him and, especially, Valeri in midfield, and the result was a solid defensive showing. If they had been able to put a goal on the board (and they had plenty of chances after Asprilla's first half red card), it would have been even better.
Valeri has the most key passes (passes leading to a shot) per game in MLS this season, as well as the third most total assists and third most total shots. He is a very, very dangerous player, and one who hits passes like this all the time.
Being able to prevent him from providing service to Adi is key. They can do that by clogging the midfield, keeping players central and defending tightly and compactly. Sometimes, that strategy can actually lead to chances, as we saw Real Salt Lake do in their 2-2 draw with Portland last weekend.
RSL were often able to get the ball behind defensive midfielder Diego Chara and come up with some creative interplay in Zone 14. Putting numbers in the midfield can pay off against the Timbers, offensively and defensively.
2. Set piece defense
At first glance, it would appear that the Timbers aren't all that dangerous on set pieces. They only have five goals from them, good for eighth in the league, and are the worst team in MLS at winning aerial duels, per WhoScored. Portland aren't exactly famous for them (unlike the Red Bulls, who have scored on 12 set pieces this season, accounting for almost half their goals this season), but they are dangerous enough for the Dynamo to be wary of them.
Center back Liam Ridgewell — who, at 6'2", is one of their most dangerous targets on restarts — was sidelined for an extended period of time at the beginning of the season, hampering their set piece effectiveness. It was Ridgewell, who returned from a hamstring injury in early May, who scored on a header against San Jose:
The main reason, however, that they are a serious threat on set pieces is not just the big guns like Ridgewell and Adi. The Timbers are very good at finding second balls and either finishing them first time or recycling them back out for another cross, often hitting the defense while they are disorganized. Diego Chara sits at the top of the box and gathers in rebounds, while players like Nat Borchers and Melano poach loose balls around the box.
The Dynamo have to be ready, and have to be prepared to defend multiple waves of attacks. If they get disorganized or forget to mark a man, they will be punished.
3. Capitalize on mistakes
There were multiple moments in the Timbers' last two games where they turned the ball over in the back and almost got punished for it. Their constantly changing backline (right back Alvas Powell has been injured for weeks, and they have yet to find a left back) is vulnerable to costly mistakes, so the Dynamo should take advantage of that.
To do that, Mauro Manotas (yes, Manotas) and co. have to consistently keep up the pressure and pin the Timbers in their end. If they do force a mistake (an errant pass, too much dribbling, etc.), they need to capitalize on it. Finish chances, and they just might be able to beat this Timbers side.