The first game following the MLS All-Star break does not mark the second half of the season, mathematically. Each team has somewhere around 11 to 14 games remaining, so it is accurate to call this the beginning of the season’s sprint to the playoffs. The Dynamo are third in the Western Conference, one point behind FC Dallas and three behind Sporting KC having played 22 matches. Dallas have played 20, and SKC 23. Realistically, Houston should be competing for a top-two spot, which guarantees a playoff bye.
FCD and Sporting KC, in all honesty, are better teams than the Dynamo, and should be expected to finish out the season on top of the conference. That doesn’t mean the Orange aren’t right there in the mix, with a very present chance of challenging the hierarchy.
To do that, wins on the road against pesky lower-tier opponents would be very helpful, especially considering the away points Houston have to make up for after going for so long losing most of their road games. This week, they’re in Sandy, Utah, whose team was ripped to shreds at BBVA Compass Stadium back on May 31st, to the tune of 5-1.
Here’s what to expect from Real Salt Lake, and what the Dynamo have to do to walk out with a win:
1. Crowd the central channel
RSL are in rebuilding mode right now. Not directionless, like D.C. United, or “completely skip the rebuild part and just jump straight to contender” like the Dynamo. In traditional American sports terms, they are legitimately rebuilding — developing and identifying a young base, putting together consistent tactics, lineups, and culture, and surrounding a young team with veterans who fit right in various positions. It is a bit of “you have to be bad to be good,” but it’s far from tanking, and it they aren’t exactly a walkover right now.
There are plenty of holes, and it will be some time before they get to the point where they want to go. But they are quietly sneaking up the MLS standings since Mike Petke has settled in as coach and their bad luck with absences has died down; since June 17th, their first game after an international break they entered having lost by a combined 11-3 in Texas, they have 11 points from seven matches, tied for second in the Western Conference.
Their attack is extremely young, and has been energetic and productive despite the consistent lack of a true No. 9. Albert Rusnak (23) and Jefferson Savarino (20) work very well as duel creators, Brooks Lennon (19) and Sebastian Saucedo (20) have been effective as situational wingers, and Joao Plata has picked it up considerably in a revived attack. Center back Justen Glad (20) and right back Danilo Acosta (19) have emerged as quality backline starters, as well.
The weakness is central midfield, where an aging Kyle Beckerman starts alongside injury-prone average-to-below-average No. 8 Stephen Sunday. This is where the Dynamo should exploit them.
Of course, speedy wing attacks are Houston’s fortè, and the presumptive returns of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto only reaffirm that. But gaining room in midfield to then spray wide from advanced positions would create dangerous attacks in higher volume. Tomas Martinez probably won’t start, so that should mean another start for Alex as a No. 10, and hopefully Mauro Manotas (better with his feet and more active than Cubo Torres) will start up top. It will primarily be their job to get into the half-spaces between RSL’s backline and midfield.
Beckerman’s smart and a seasoned veteran, but he is 35, and Sunday struggles at times to cover the channels and get pressure to advancing midfielders. Glad, tall, athletic, and mobile, can cover for them at times, but he’s a one-man show if the players ahead of him can’t do the job at a top level.
2. Be more effective in possession
Last week against Portland, the Dynamo settled for a draw because the Timbers’ movement in the final third was too skilled, varied, and complex for a backline that generally likes to sit in their set shape and defend statically in specific zones. That’s a topic for another day, but one tactical point from that game applies directly to an ever-present issue for the Dynamo: possession, and their inability to both keep it themselves and prevent their opponents from using it effectively.
As per Matt Doyle’s column for MLSsoccer.com, this was Portland’s Opta map from last week:
That image relates each player’s aggregate touch position to create an average team shape, and the lines between each player represents how many passes were exchanged between them. You can see that the Timbers’ front-four (#9 Fanendo Adi, #6 Darlington Nagbe, #8 Diego Valeri, #10 Sebastian Blanco) made a lot of passes to each other.
The Dynamo’s graph is not public, unfortunately, but considering the eye test from that game, it’s reasonable to assume the lines were a lot less thick.
Portland were very connected together in attack, and spent considerable time in Houston’s defensive third moving through the channels and orchestrating possession through an inverted Nagbe and always-threatening Valeri. It’s not new that the Dynamo focused on sitting deep and countering (that is understandably their style), but they can not be allowing clubs to do this.
To combat it, they have to be more content moving the ball patiently through midfield, and stepping out of their defensive shape a bit in order to push the opposition back and get pressure to the ball.
3. Rico’s ball-moving
This team is very much built to sit deep and counter — nowhere is that ideology more prevalent than in midfield, where they have Alex (a marathon runner and ball-winner whose distribution skills reside almost entirely on final balls and long diagonal switches) starting alongside stoic foul-machine d-mid Juan David Cabezas, a solid presence who is content clogging channels in front of the backline but is not comfortable passing the ball around or breaking midfield lines.
That’s how the team is designed, and that is a sign of great organization progress that their personnel reflects it. But they do need a player more capable of passing efficiently and building intelligent possession stretches, and that’s what they’ll most likely get in Martinez.
For the very short term, Ricardo Clark is probably the starter in midfield alongside Alex and Cabezas. While his starting days are numbered, his ability to move the ball against RSL will be crucial to the key looked at above.