After the Dynamo dropped bad points on Wednesday night against LA and FC Dallas won their first match since July 22nd, this is what the Western Conference standings look like:
This is one heck of a tight race. Houston are essentially battling with FC Dallas for that final playoff spot, both on the heels of Real Salt Lake (who are playing really well right now) and being trailed by the Jekyll and Hyde San Jose Earthquakes, who are close but have some work to do.
On August 15th, Vancouver were seventh, the Dynamo were first(!), and FC Dallas still had a ton of games in hand. Since that point, Houston are 0-3-3 and have drawn 3-3 twice, scoring just two goals in the other four games. They’ve won just once since the beginning of August, losing at home to the worst team in the league (Colorado) and on the road to a prime competitor (San Jose).
Things aren’t looking great in Houston, and it’s not Fotis Bazakos’s fault. Two primary factors have led to this serious uncertainty and panic button pushing: 1) Wilmer Cabrera’s insistence on squad rotation has resulted in subpar lineups being consistently put out and, most importantly, 2) they’ve gotten away from the style that brought them contention in the first place.
It’s hard to completely blame personnel for this slump. Alberth Elis is still beasting, and the other players who should be beasting haven’t played enough to have the opportunity to beast. Mauro Manotas has started just twice in that six-game stretch (scoring once and subbing on four times) despite being the best lone forward on the team, and Romell Quioto played an average of 52 minutes per game in that stretch. Secret Weapon Vicente Sanchez has played just 165 out of a possible 540 minutes.
The big problem is that they’ve gone away from the sit-deep-and-counter-harder style that had them roasting clubs in the beginning of the season. I’ve written extensively on why the Dynamo need to get better in possession, but the opinions expressed there were not that they needed to get away from what made them good earlier in the season; they needed to become more multi-dimensional and adaptive, not to needlessly tinker and adjust their playing style to a balanced average.
Something we have to understand — and this is meant to lift the spirits of Dynamo fans, not down them — is that this team is built to improve over time, not necessarily win a cup now. They have flaws and unsolved mysteries that we’ll address after this season, and a core of newcomer, younger players who are just now finding their places. They’re talented and capable of knocking off teams in November, but their championship window is not now.
Thus, in the short-term, it is perfectly fine to play your best soccer, even if it’s not something a neutral observer would call “pretty.” Their best soccer is unquestionably playing a deep line, keeping the wingers wide and countering to brutal effect. Alex was at his best as a deep-lying distributor, and the front three of Quioto-Cubo-Elis was feasting on teams unable to keep up. They didn’t play well at home, and while it would have helped to be able to keep the ball a bit and find space from that as well, their away form was, in general, a different issue.
I’m going to reserve analysis of Tomas Martinez’s playing style until I watch more of him (I still have to watch the LA game; life, amirite?), so whether he is as good in that system is not a question I’m going to answer right now — feel free to take a shot at it in the comments below.
Their schedule over the last four games is manageable. Three of four are at BBVA Compass Stadium, and while a home and away series against Sporting KC will certainly be tough, they should be beating Minnesota this weekend even if the Loons are playing well. If the Dynamo hadn’t pulled an FC Dallas over the last few weeks, we could be talking about their chances of hosting a playoff game right now, but I digress.
To halt this “drop points every game no matter what” run, they need to focus on putting their best players on the field (hint, Romell Quioto, hint) and playing a style best suited to their strengths. It’s on Wilmer to get this team playing well again.