We’re back! MLS started Friday and there’s another full slate of games on Saturday. The Dynamo will play the Seattle Sounders (who I will not refer to as the “defending champs” for the rest of this article) at BBVA Compass Stadium at 7:30 pm CT.
If you haven’t been keeping up — although I know a lot of you are more familiar with these players than I am — the Dynamo finish the offseason with a new coach and a number of Latin Americans walking into the starting lineup (except for Juan David Cabezas, who is hilariously suspended due to a second yellow card in his final match with Independiente Medellin in Colombia).
Erick “Cubo” Torres is relevant again, enough to where there is a legitimate possibility he starts. AJ DeLaGarza and Leonardo, who last year were teammates in LA, will start together on the backline following January trades. With a new manager comes a new formation, as the 4-3-3 will replace the 4-1-4-1 as the formation of choice.
Oh, and they project to miss the playoffs. Maybe I’ll praise the team one of these days, when they deserve it, but they haven’t deserved it in a while. A win (yes, three points) against the visitors could elicit some good words your’s truly.
Without further ado, here are the Dynamo’s keys to victory:
1. Play with two designated defensive midfielders
I was very tempted to use “hope”, “hope some more”, and “plead with the soccer gods” as my keys, because Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Clint Dempsey amount to MLS’s equivalent of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel all playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Guess who both won championships last year?
And Dempsey hasn’t even played since my birthday (August 21st). That’s the same as the Warriors winning the championship this year even if Kevin Durant misses the rest of the season with a sprained MCL. Obviously, it is a scary thought for the Dynamo to face a team with MLS’s best young American, best old American, and best non-Italian leading the attack, especially after watching the four games they played together last year.
No other MLS team has as powerful a big four as Seattle, if you include Ozzie Alonso. When championship-level role players are added, the Sounders become one of the three best sides in MLS.
The Dynamo have a history of getting overrun in midfield by XIs this good, especially during the period when a defensive midfielder was not even used. Newly-acquired No. 6 Cabezas will not be available, and that leaves Houston without a backline-protector.
For a long time, they were in a similar predicament. Throughout 2015 and early 2016, they didn’t have a d-mid on the roster, and they never decided to go out and fix it until they started using Collen Warner, so their solution was to use a by-committee system, playing three players as box-to-box midfielders and hoping they would find the correct defensive spacing.
It didn’t work.
Because of human nature, the three central midfielders on the field would all push forward at the same time — without direction on how to rotate — and leave a huge gap in front of the backline for a player like Diego Fagundez to fill. It feels really, really simple tactically, but Owen Coyle and co. never thought deeply enough to see the problem until it was too late. He was fired because of it.
Now, it’s been a while since Houston haven’t had a capable d-mid available. Wade Barrett stuck with Warner from the beginning of his tenure and realized his effectiveness, starting him every week until the season’s end. He never encountered the problem that Cabrera now faces, a problem only compounded by Seattle’s firepower.
The obvious universal answer in sports when a starter is unavailable is — wait for it — to put a backup in their place. That’s why we do depth charts. But who is good enough to take Cabezas’s spot at the base of a 4-3-3 midfield?
- Eric Alexander? He played well at d-mid in preseason, but then, he’s Eric Alexander, and he’s gravitated more towards a box-to-box role.
- Alex? A high energy ball-winner who is an important dynamo (ha) in the Dynamo’s midfield, but he is not positionally sound enough to be a true No. 6, and he’s not a good enough distributor.
- Ricardo Clark? He just turned 34 last month, and he is not Marco Donadel, so his d-mid days are mostly behind him.
- Joe Holland? Yeah, let’s play an English MLS rookie out of position as a lone defensive midfielder against MLS’s most talented central attack in his first professional game. That sounds exactly like something the Dynamo would do, in all honesty.
No great options here. So, and stay with me here, we’re going to problem-solve, which means that we are going to find a better, workable solution (sorry, not sure if the coaching staff is reading this or not). I’ll stop being irrationally mean now.
Wilmer Cabrera is a smart guy (don’t you love it when I contradict myself?) and he likely realizes the gravity of this tactical dilemma. And he’s probably seen that the best way to solve it is to play two players as designated defensive midfielders.
Basically, make the formation a 4-2-1-3 rather than a 4-1-2-3. It could look like this:
Clark is likely start somewhere in that midfield if only because he’s Rico, but the basic gist of this is that no matter what, the Dynamo have to have two players designated as backline-protectors, or they’ll get steamrolled.
Nobody other than Cabezas is prepared to play as a lone d-mid, so simply play two guys at the position. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel.
2. Find a defensive shape and stay with it
Don’t discount how good this Seattle side with Dempsey really is. They will attack from every possible facet at every possible time, and the Dynamo have to be prepared with tight defensive organization and effective marking schemes, on set pieces or not.
This is what the Sounders’ attacking shape will look like:
The front four of Alvaro Fernandez, Dempsey, Morris, and Lodeiro are protected by the best midfield partnership in the league (Alonso and Cristian Roldan). They have free reign to go where they want in the final third, and with Morris’s speedy diagonal runs and Lodeiro’s playmaking nuance, it quickly becomes a marking nightmare for opposing teams.
Cabrera and co. will have to know how they want to handle this, and, more importantly, it has to be accurately communicated to the players. This is more important in this game than in any other, because losing track of Dempsey is not hard, and it can be deadly with the supporting cast he has.
When you’re calling Nicolas Lodeiro “supporting cast” you know you’re really good.
For the first time in a long time, the Dynamo have a legit good front three, whether or not Mauro Manotas starts. They’ll probably settle into a rhythm of sitting deep and looking to hit on the counter, which is fine until they find a No. 10. More than ever, that’s how they’ll look against Seattle.
One of the Latin Americans will score today, I’m just not sure which one. Bet on it.
Maybe don’t bet on a Dynamo win, though.