The Houston Dynamo have made it through two rounds of the MLS Cup Playoffs and now face the Sounders in the Conference Finals. What’s amazing, and perhaps speaks to MLS as a league, is that the Dynamo had missed out on the playoffs last season – well, the last three seasons. The Sounders meanwhile are the reigning MLS Cup Champions and finished as the two seed ensuring a bye week during the opening round of the playoffs. They were able to easily put down the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 on aggregate in the next round and are the favorites in the series against Houston.
In our preview of the match we discussed the previous meetings between these clubs and how the international break might impact the game, but we wanted a perspective from someone that rocks the Rave Green so we spoke with Dave Clark at Sounder at Heart to gain his insight about the reinging champs coming into this game.
Dynamo Theory: Given Dynamo’s dominance at BBVA Compass Stadium this season, what will Seattle’s approach be for the first leg in Houston?
Sounder at Heart: With a weakened lineup against Vancouver Brian Schmetzer chose to play for the road nil-nil draw. That conservatism was necessary and worked. Now, he'll be a bit more open. There's more talented players in the 18. With Schmetzer generally liking to force other teams to react to him, rather than being reactive. He should put forth a posture that leads to 3-4 total goals scored rather than one that would take a miracle by either team to just get a single notch on the scoreboard. Getting a goal-scoring draw should be the focus.
DT: The main man to mark is obviously Clint Dempsey, but the Sounders have also seen Will Bruin’s role increase. How does the former Dynamo player fit into the Sounders system, and what can we expect to see from him that maybe we haven’t before?
SaH: Bruin succeeds at two things -- poaching and set-pieces. When a team forgets about Will as they focus on Clint and Nico the former Houston forward will snag rebounds and sloppy play to score goals. It isn't pretty, but it is glorious. On set-pieces the team can target his play, whether through knock-on headers or as the primary target Bruin is effective in the area. There are more talented players than Will Bruin on Seattle, but Bruin has the second most goals because he fits what the team needs.
DT: Nicolas Lodeiro is the engine that drives the Sounders offense. What can the Dynamo do to limit his influence in the game?
SaH: Foul him a lot -- Nico is the third most fouled player in MLS history. Teams do it because it works. Fouls at midfield prevent Seattle from transitioning quickly, while fouls in deeper areas are effective because Lodeiro doesn't have the best service. This is mitigated if Victor Rodriguez plays or if the foul is in Clint Dempsey's direct kick range. It's boring soccer, but without it Lodeiro pops into spaces all over the field and can steer the attack from dozens of yards away. His vision means he can be effective at chance creation, even if playing the 8.
DT: One of the biggest strengths the Dynamo has is in the speed of its forwards especially out wide. How will the Sounders adjust to the quick counters that are such an important part of Houston’s offense?
SaH: The main adjustment from the earlier games is competent defense out wide. When Kelvin Leerdam joined the team, the right back position went from smorgasbord to single five-star entree. When Leerdam has a full season he could be the discussion as a Defender of the Year. While Houston faced Joevin Jones at left back in the early matches, the changes there are up the field where the attacking mids are providing more pressure than they did early in the season. I still expect the Dynamo to have some success on counters against the Seattle left. It will be up to Chad Marshall and Gustav Svensson to provide support when Jones bursts forward, as he often does.
DT: The last time we spoke was prior to the Sounders’ win over the Dynamo in Seattle in June. I asked a question about the Sounders performance up to that point with the club in the 8th spot in the West. What helped turn things around with the Sounders finishing with the 2 seed?
SaH: As is true with all runs in MLS a huge part of it was health. Seattle's right back situation was dire. Players who could be called 5th and 6th on the depth chart were starting there while 3rd-5th were starting at centerback. For a team built on defense that's just horrible. Adding Leerdam solved the right back situation. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres getting healthy sorted out the CB issues. Suddenly the Sounders went from pedestrian attack and pedestrian defense to an elite defense. That offense was ineffective because Jordan Morris tried to play through injuries that limited his speed. As the team added talent Morris was able to rest and Will Bruin bore more of the attacking load.
DT: How will the recent international break impact the Sounders? Did they have any players with national teams and will travel be an issue for those players?
SaH: Only three Sounders left for international play. Roman Torres turned down the opportunity and Cristian Roldan was not called up due to the playoffs "still going." All three that left are now back with the team without injury. Gustav Svensson helped Sweden beat Italy, playing 88 minutes in the two games, and will be going to the World Cup. Nicolas Lodeiro's Uruguay already qualified for the World Cup. He played 11 minutes against Austria and didn't make the field against Poland in two friendlies over in Europe. Nouhou's Cameroon had a meaningless World Cup Qualifier against Zambia. The young, enigmatic left back went the full 90.
The biggest benefit is that two players are nearing full health. Victor Rodriguez should be able to start after only being healthy enough to be a sub, while Jordan Morris looks likely to be a sub and may even be a surprise starter.
Projected Lineup: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Kelvin Leerdam; Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan; Victor Rodriguez, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin
For my answers to Dave’s excellent questions check them out at Sounder at Heart!