The Houston Dynamo, for the first time this season, walked out of a game at BBVA Compass Stadium with only one player on the scoresheet, and for just the second time, no three points. In a contentious round two of the Texas Derby, FC Dallas held the Dynamo to a 1-1 draw.
Oscar Pareja’s gameplan was simple: make the game as slow as possible to limit the space of the Dynamo’s attack, and assure that neither team had any opportunities to score. The pushing and shoving of the second half helped in this cause, and, conveniently, killed time.
It was not a very entertaining game. Houston got their goal relatively early on, when Matt Hedges made an extremely rare blunder and let the ball bounce in behind to Cubo Torres less than halfway through the first half. FCD, who had been the better team up to that point, waited until the 59th-minute to equalize on a low, turning bouncer from Maxi Urruti after he caught Juan David Cabezas sleeping on a late run.
Aside from those two goals, the teams combined for exactly one shot on goal in 95 minutes, and that was a slow Urruti curler from a bad angle that dropped harmlessly into Tyler Deric’s arms. This is a map of every shot attempted in that game, including blocked ones:
There are 22 shots on that map. Exactly half of them originated from outside the box. Eight of the 22 were blocked. Of the shots inside the box, two were goals, one was on-target, and three were blocked. Deric and Jesse Gonzalez might as well have walked up to a concessions stand and bought a hot dog.
This is by design. Pareja, unlike every manager that has walked into BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017, thought through some ancient soccer tactics logic. He realized that in order to not be caught without numbers in the back against a team that scores a lot, you don’t commit numbers forward. Of course, if you don’t commit numbers forward, you have less of a chance of scoring goals.
It’s the most basic of trade-offs, and one that was figured out literally over a century ago, by players who fought in World War I.
Pareja decided not only to play a deep defensive line, keep the full backs alongside the center backs, and place a defensive midfielder very close to those central defenders, but also to pass the ball around and spend pretty much the entire game with the primary focus of killing time off the clock. It doesn’t exactly make for good soccer.
You probably noticed that at times in the game, everything would fall to a complete standstill. Zero urgency from either side, and the only thing happening would be two players tapping the ball back and forth. No off-the-ball movement, no runs, no nothing. Almost as if the referee had blown the whistle and the game was stopped for some reason.
These sequences happened more than a few times, with both teams on the ball. Dallas were prepared to wait it out as long as possible. For Houston, they couldn’t figure out how to distribute from back to front with the way FCD’s players were condensing the passing lanes and basically man-marking the front three. The result was a boring game, little chances on either side, and an unrealistically high amount of passes.
The Dynamo finished with 435 passes, and Dallas 449. Houston’s season average is 362, and Dallas’s is 386. Look at the passing map with every player’s distribution and you’ll barely see any green in the defensive half and midfield. That was the way FCD slowed the game down: condense every possible distribution lane, sit deep, play conservative, and force Houston to pass their way from back to front. If not for the one error by Hedges on a desperate, extremely low-percentage long ball from Adolpho Machado, Dallas would have clean sheeted the Dynamo.
Wilmer Cabrera, as has been his number one flaw this season, was not aggressive enough after scoring the goal, and Houston were all too content to let FCD implement their plan. As good as a manager as he’s been this season, he was thoroughly out-coached by his good friend and compatriot Pareja.
This draw — or loss, because for the Dynamo, it feels like one — illustrates again Houston’s inability to make anything from possession. A manager was always going to walk into BBVA knowing this weakness and exploit it, and that’s exactly what Pareja did. When forced to create their own space and break down an opposition, they struggle, and Cabrera appears unwilling to relent and become a bunker-and-counter team.
Going in, it’s possible that the Colombian and former Chivas USA manager realized that the Dynamo were going to have to pass their way through FC Dallas, and adjusted his lineup accordingly. Boniek Garcia, more adept in short passing situations and arguably more creative, started instead of Alex, a move that was incredibly risky from the beginning considering the Brazilian’s importance to this team.
While Boniek played well, the move backfired, because it did little to help create meaningful possession — I’d have started both of them as duel No. 8s, but it appears that Cabrera is set on Ricardo Clark.
And so the puzzle of how to overcome this team’s greatest weakness remains unsolved. Now that FC Dallas has figured out the Dynamo, the blueprint is public and free to use for every other MLS team tasked with getting a result in Houston. Expect the film of that game to be watched a lot by future Dynamo opponents, and then improved upon by clubs with different skillsets.
How Houston’s season plays out from here depends on Cabrera’s ability to recognize and adapt.