The Dynamo are one of just four MLS teams who have been able to accumulate six points in their first two games. They are also one of the two teams (along with San Jose) to do it without having to go on the road.
Their first big test comes on Saturday when they take on the 2-0 Portland Timbers at Providence Park. The Timbers flamed Minnesota 5-1 in the opening game of the season, and rode a couple of questionable referring decisions to a nonetheless impressive 1-0 road win over 10-man LA last week.
Here are some things they’ll have to do in order to make another statement against a Cascadian team:
1. Cover the half space
Houston have made of relying almost completely on their front three for attacking production. They drop the midfield three deep and attempt to get Alberth Elis, Erick Torres, and Romell Quioto on the run or time on the ball in the final third and simply let them do their thing.
Judging from the fact that they’ve combined for five goals over two games, the system has worked its purpose.
The problem that we can see with it, though, is the gap that is created between the midfield and the forwards. It was mentioned by Eddie Robinson on the broadcast (I’m not making any revelations here) and became obvious against Columbus as Federico Higuain and others found loads of space to pick his passes:
Dynamo have to learn to close the gap between the midfielders and the forwards without giving up space in the channels: pic.twitter.com/X72qHdNYHX— Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21) March 18, 2017
Pause that video when Wil Trapp gets his head and looks at the midfield. Notice the flat line formed by Eric Alexander, Ricardo Clark, and Alex, and how the Crew’s attackers are taking positions in narrow gaps. No player should be afforded that kind of time in his attacking half, especially when he has maneuvering attackers doing whatever they can to break apart the two lines.
Columbus could have made so much more of this opportunity and many others like it had they been sharper and smarter with their passes. They were unable to move the ball quickly enough to really disjoint the Dynamo’s organization, and Higuain’s ball to right back Connor Maloney on the flank was too far to the touchline.
Seeing this, Caleb Porter and the Timbers will certainly take note of it, and make sure to try and take advantage of it by pushing his wingers inwards and flying the full backs forward as much as possible.
The tactical dilemma now facing Cabrera, then, is how to keep the coverage the midfielders provide for the backline (don’t forget that they basically finished with a clean sheet last week) while making sure to stop players from having the kind of space Trapp had above.
2. Make a plan for Adi
Another wrench in the Dynamo’s stout 4-3 defensive organization is the ability of Portland forward Fanendo Adi to provide all of the classic qualities of a center forward: relentless strength, play with his back to goal, and dominating aerial prowess.
The effect that the Nigerian No. 9 can have is what eventually opens up space for others like Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. Adi pulls defenders out of position by dropping deeper and fending them off with his back to goal, allowing other attackers to fill the space in behind. With such able distributors like Valeri, he more often than not succeeds in messing up opposing backlines’ organization, like we saw with Vadim Demidov and Minnesota two weeks ago.
Cabrera must do something about this. The solution should be to assign a center back to Adi and make sure to have midfielders prepared to rotate and cover open passages. They did a relatively good job of that against Columbus, but they have yet to face a player as talented in this role as Adi.
3. Make a point of hitting that diagonal ball
The front three spent most of its time isolated, but before they can go off on their island, they have to receive the ball from teammates. Often, it was through long diagonal switches from the midfield that this was accomplished.
All three of Cubo, Elis, and Quioto have exceptional touches when on the run, and this allows them to fully take advantage of those long balls.
Alex was the most effective at hitting those passes, as evidenced by Torres’s goal against the Crew:
When Portland’s fullbacks inevitably bomb forward, that’s the cue for these types of lightning counters. They are nothing if not fun to watch.