Of any team in MLS, the Houston Dynamo may be the least likely to qualify for the postseason. The Dynamo and the Chicago Fire, the two worst sides in the league according to the standings, will need to go on a mad dash for points at this juncture in the season if they want to make a serious attempt at playing past October. Even with the improvements brought on by soon-to-be head coach Wade Barrett (expect that interim tag to come off after the season), Houston has essentially run out of time, especially with their concerning road woes.
But that doesn't mean the rest of the season doesn't matter. Far from it, actually. These final 17 or so matches will give Barrett time to figure out the lineup, the system, and the personnel he wants to use in the future, and to develop younger potential-filled guys like Mauro Manotas into starting-caliber players. At this point, the goal should be to find clarity and decide who should be part of the long-term plans. If someone offers to take Cubo Torres away, great. Aside from that, the only action the Dynamo should be doing this summer transfer window is giving Manotas some minutes.
That new system appears to be coming to light under Barrett. His midfield-heavy 4-1-4-1 isn't the most entertaining or aesthetically-pleasing formations out there, but it does a very effective job of controlling the middle of the park with organization, suffocating pressure, and unmatched box-to-box play. It's produced a ridiculous number of 1-0 and 1-1 results, so it must be working.
It was again on display against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night. As a fan, you should hope that continues.
It's time to take a bit of a closer look at the aforementioned system.
To do that, we first have to understand what it looks like. So here's an approximation of the lineup:
This, of course, is what it looked like against Philadelphia. Cristian Maidana could easily be inserted for Boniek Garcia or Alex should Barrett decide he wants more chance-creation.
The focal point of this lineup is in deeper midfield, where Collen Warner is stationed as a true number-six. He acts as the main central distributor (much of the distribution comes from the full-backs as well) and he is the all-important link between the midfield and the backline. With Warner sitting deep, Alex and Ricardo Clark have a license to attack, and when they do that, they often combine with Boniek or an overlapping Beasley down the left wing. Alex and even Will Bruin often drifted to the left side against the Union.
Sometimes, Boniek and the right winger (whether it is Andrew Wenger or Giles Barnes) pinch in and overwhelm the middle of the field, allowing them to free space for the channel-running Bruin — who holds the unofficial record for center back-splitting runs — and put numbers into the box for a cross. Warner has even had a license to get in on the attack and act as a third runner at the top of the box following Bruin and Clark. Being a former box-to-box midfielder with Toronto FC, he has the ability to do that, and Barrett has smartly allowed it recently.
This attack — which often becomes six or even seven on four — does a good job of creating chances when they are doing one of the above two options. The reason they haven't scored many goals is their lack of incisiveness and finishing touch in the final third, and that's the downfall to the entire system.
They can create these chances, but they can't do anything with them. They fail to get off shots in and around the box, and when they do, they struggle to finish them. It's a flaw of the players, not the system, however, and it can be solved with a couple of personnel decisions. In the meantime, their effectiveness in the final third is severely lacking:
Wenger's bad touch ruined a very nice build-up — which, I have to mention, began in the back with Warner and Jalil Anibaba — and that seems to be a recurring instance on this team.
But it's not the attacking quality that makes this system work; it's the defense. Barrett has made sure that every player, front to back, has clear, defined defensive responsibilities, and that they execute them properly. Unlike the Union, who often employ a similar 4-1-4-1 look, the Dynamo provide ample support for the defensive midfielder. Garcia, Alex, and, albeit to a lesser extent, Clark, each play as box-to-box midfielders with the responsibility of pressing tight — not high, there's a difference — in the midfield and making sure the opposition can't break through the middle of the field.
Take this image as an example:
Notice how the Union only have two midfielders, but the Dynamo have three, and all three are stepping to the ball. That kind of pressure will take playmaking abilities away from anyone. It's that kind of defense that makes this formation work as well as it does.
Barrett needs to keep this going. He needs to take it and run with it, and that means playing it as much as possible: in practice, in USOC games, in friendlies, and anywhere else to get this squad familiar with it. The constant tinkering and lineup experimentation needs to go, and this 4-1-4-1 is the answer. It's been helping the Dynamo play considerably better soccer, and that will coincide with results.
And it will eventually help Barrett win this job.