The MLS Western Conference playoff race is tight. There is just a five-point difference between 2-6 clubs, and 1st-place Portland (on 44 points, two ahead of Seattle) have played at least two more matches than every other contending team. San Jose, in seventh, are just a point off FC Dallas, and RSL, another point back of the Quakes, won’t go away yet. It is a fierce battle for playoff positioning.
So for a club like the Houston Dynamo, who are fifth with 38 points and games in hand, games at home against the worst team in the league are must-win if they’re going to try and host a playoff game. Especially considering they are unusually bad on the road and need all the home points they can get.
The unthinkable happened on Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium in the Dynamo’s first game since Hurricane Harvey. The Colorado Rapids, still in last place even after their win, are playing with an interim coach, a roster without talent, and an identity so unsustainable it lost their previous coach his job. They are, without question, playing for 2018 and buying their time until they can demolish the current roster and completely start over.
1-0 was the final score, a second-half stoppage-time Dominique Badji winner the difference. It was an ugly game featuring little opportunities on goal and very few highlight-worthy moments, resembling closely a 2016 Wade Barrett game. Clearly, the Rapids designed it this way, just like FC Dallas did in the first round of the Texas Derby.
Muck up the passing lanes, slow everything down as much as possible, and force the Dynamo to come up with something is the way to take points off Houston, and Colorado interim coach Steve Cooke knew it. It was not executed as succinctly as Oscar Pareja’s FCD, and the Rapids pretty much do that every week, but it worked to brutal effect.
In 96 minutes of mostly 0-0 soccer, Houston managed to muster 18 shots. Only three of those went on target, and just one required Tim Howard (a virtual spectator) to put in effort. We do not Expected Goals numbers, but I have an inkling that the Dynamo will not produce a high number.
Whatever chances they created came from crosses or set pieces, not any sort of build-up at all. With Colorado putting every player behind the ball and straight parking the bus, Houston was forced to have the ball on their feet, and they had no clue what to do.
74' | The Dynamo are 0-4-1 when they have more possession than their opponent. So far tonight they have 62%.— Corey Roepken (@RipSports) September 10, 2017
HOU 0-0 COL
Wilmer Cabrera, for reasons I can not figure out, did not start the guy they brought in for the exact purposes of creating chances from possession. No. 10 Tomas Martinez, yet to start in a Dynamo uniform, played 30 minutes off the bench, blocked by Alex in the starting lineup despite the fact that Alex is not a 10. If you disagree, I recommend going back and watching a game from 2016 in which he played as a No. 8 at a high level, and then consider the first 60 minutes of this loss.
Romell Quioto did not start either, which also is an inexplicable decision from Cabrera, who deserves the lion’s share of blame for this result. He has been unable to react and adapt to clubs making easy tactical adjustments against the Dynamo, which he had to do after Dallas put out the blueprint in June.
Perhaps the most damaging element of this loss from a Dynamo perspective is that literally every other team in the league has succeeded in breaking down Colorado’s bunker. That’s why they’ve lost 16 times in 27 games, and why they had accumulated a grand total of two away points prior to this win. FC Dallas, even if they are slumping right now, possess a ton of defensive talent and tactical cohesiveness; these are things the Rapids do not have. This only illustrates more how bad the Dynamo are when they have to play against a bunkering team.
The solution to this is Cabrera’s to figure out. It is his job to design intricate possession patterns and positional nuances, or counter with larger-scale tactical adjustments of his own. As has been the primary story with this team for months, how Cabrera does this will dictate Houston’s final place in the standings.