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The two phases of Wilmer Cabrera’s tactical system

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Cabrera has two main elements to his tactical system. They’ve been effective, but they have potentially fatal flaws.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Wilmer Cabrera’s tactical revamp of the Houston Dynamo this season has produced very promising results. Six points from three games is better than most MLS teams have produced this season, and the Dynamo’s new additions (notably Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis, obviously) have paid real dividends so far.

It’s March and everything will have changed by the time you or your kids are out of school for the summer, but there are still important things to take away from every MLS club. Whether Houston will continue to keep the ball out of their net could change in the future, but it’s a good bet that Quioto and Elis are legit on the wings.

Don’t get too caught up in the hype, but realize that the current Dynamo team is different than last year’s despite the obvious parallels, and enjoy that, at least for the moment, you have a quality team to cheer for.

Here’s what I’ve observed from the three games they’ve played so far:


My primary problem with Dynamo squads of the past were their lack of an identity or obvious game-plan. Cabrera has no such problem.

The first-year manager has recognized that the front three can, given the necessary space, create their own attacking opportunities without the support of other players. For that reason, the Dynamo have put their game-plan into two phases: high, hard pressing led by the front three, and quick-fire counter-attacks initiated by diagonal balls from the midfield.

That first phase of the plan is plain to see throughout the course of the game, although it is primarily in effect for the first 10 or 15 minutes. This is the most obvious example:

With the support of a midfielder (usually Alex) covering the passing lanes behind them, the front three will chase and probe opposing backlines until they either boot the ball upfield or turn it over. The speed and agility of Cubo Torres, Quioto, and Elis allow them to smother as many gaps as possible and force errant passes. At the very least, the press will pin opponents deep in their own half and negate possession in higher places. Seattle, for example, fell victim to this.

One benefit to the front three being so aggressive in pressing deep possession is that the opposition often will decide to put the ball over the top and take their chances in midfield battles. This allows the Dynamo an opportunity to quickly win the ball back, but when the opponent is winning those battles and finding the half spaces with quick passing and movement (like Portland did), they are able to catch midfielders out of position.

Case in point, 20 seconds into the Timbers game:

Sebastian Blanco takes the ball from Torres and immediately runs into the space vacated by Alex. Eventually, Valeri and Fanendo Adi combine perfectly to get behind DaMarcus Beasley, and it almost results in an early Portland goal.

The second phase of counter-attacking relies on two things: the midfield and backline’s ability to stay compact and shut out gaps and channels; and their subsequent distribution to the front three.

This is incredibly crucial for the Dynamo to keep the ball out of their own net. Without outside players helping the full backs (Elis and Quioto don’t track back too often), their compactness in the middle and rotations to cover the flanks are magnified in importance.

Here’s what that generally looks like in terms of shape:

Ricardo Clark and Alex, who would be classified as the ‘outside central midfielders’ for this exercise, have to pay attention to the two players in the central channels as well as the players out wide. They’ve done a good job of it given the fitness requirements, but clever players like Valeri can exploit the obvious gaps by creating from wide positions and opening space for players like Darlington Nagbe to pinch into the middle. That is ultimately the reason for Portland’s four goals.

Overall, though, it’s worked fairly well. The players have individually played well and have adjusted well to their new roles, learning to quickly read passing lanes and adequately condense the gaps opposing midfields use break through their lines. The center backs, especially, have looked organized and more cohesive than one would expect.

But at some point, the onus on the midfielders cover so much space gets to be too big, and the best teams (and the ones who watched Portland score four times) will spread the field and get attackers into the half-space between the backline and the midfield to take advantage of Houston’s system.

Once it happens again, adjustment will be necessary from Cabrera, even if means dropping a winger deeper and changing the defensive shape to four blocks of two. That could make all the difference.