With an ugly extra-time win over Sporting KC on Thursday in the MLS Cup playoff knockout round, the Houston Dynamo advanced to a conference semifinals matchup against the Portland Timbers. The first game is on Monday at BBVA Compass, and the second is Sunday in Oregon.
It’s important to remember that this year was supposed to be year 1 of a full-scale rebuild. They aren’t built to win now, and they will be better next year with a more established Manotas-Quioto-Elis-Cabezas-Machado-Deric core. But, knowing that fact understandably won’t dim the nervousness for this series among fans, also be aware that this is a very real opportunity to make a long run.
The Western Conference is wide open. Unlike the East, where a quality Chicago side recently got ripped apart at home by the sixth-seed Red Bulls, the four remaining Western teams are all flawed and vulnerable.
Seattle is the favorite. They are without their top two defensive midfielders and are relying on Will Bruin to score goals in 2017.
Portland are the top seed, and while they possess the league MVP (Diego Valeri) and one of the best deep midfield combos in the league (Diego Chara and David Guzman), their backline is weak and they are starting career backup Jeff Attinella in goal. It’s a winnable matchup if you’re Houston.
Three keys for the Dynamo:
1. Get Elis and Quioto on the run
There is no doubt that the Dynamo are better when they are sitting deeper and getting Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto forward on the run. Conceding possession is a necessary by-product of this, which is why Houston keep such a low percentage of the ball (they’re 20th in the league in the stat, with 45.6%).
The presence of Tomas Martinez has helped them string more passes in the final third and create chances in more diverse ways, which has played a big role in their seven-game unbeaten streak, but they remain a team that relies on long balls from deeper in midfield for their speedy wingers. Since March, this has been their M.O., and it has worked well enough to send them flying into the postseason.
2. Track Valeri
In their last nine games, the Timbers have won six, drawn once, and lost twice. Diego Valeri scored eight goals and three assists in that span, solidifying an incredible season of 21g, 11a that almost certainly will secure him the MVP award. Star No. 9 Fanendo Adi, he of 51 career MLS goals in 112 appearances (93 starts), played a grand total of zero minutes in that stretch.
So, yeah, you could say Valeri’s pretty good.
He has developed from a pure No. 10 who thrives on combination play in the final third into a second striker who stays forward more and moves constantly off the ball in Zone 14. He will stay underneath striker Darren Mattocks and score goals every possible way Juan David Cabezas and co. have to be able to stick to him and force others to beat them.
3. Cohesion on the backline
Two recent devastating injuries on the backline have made squad selection there difficult for Wilmer Cabrera. AJ DeLaGarza, the starting right back, tore his ACL on Sunday, and center back Leonardo was subbed off in the first half on Thursday, and is now listed as out on MLSsoccer.com’s preview.
From the beginning against SKC, Adolfo Machado (who played almost 3000 minutes as a center back this season) moved to right back to replace DeLaGarza, while Swiss veteran Philippe Senderos filled in at CB. Now, the dreaded scenario: Jalil Anibaba will have to step on the field. Anibaba will most likely play RB on Monday, and Machado will move back in the center next to Senderos. Figuring this situation out quickly would be optimal for the Dynamo.