The book on the Dynamo throughout the Wilmer Cabrera era has been that they struggle to create from possession. It was still considered their biggest weakness going into this season — they couldn’t score outside of set pieces and counter attacks, and when tasked coming up with a tactic other than bunker and counter, they struggled. That deficiency was notably exploited by a number of teams last season, and it was a primary reason for their resounding Western Conference finals loss to Seattle.
Their 4-0 obliteration of a poorly-prepared Atlanta team last week neither verified nor assuaged those concerns. It was to be their week two home tilt against the bunker-and-counter Vancouver Whitecaps that would give us a more concrete decision one way or the other on arguably the biggest team-wide storyline of the early 2018 season. The Whitecaps are notorious for their unapologetic defensive style of play, and they would test whether the Dynamo could be effective at creating from possession.
Vancouver indeed sat deep, and they stole a 2-1 win from BBVA Compass Stadium. But it wasn’t passing and possession that killed the Dynamo; it was their ability to come up with ideas in the final third and convert their many opportunities near the goal.
They actually looked comfortable with the ball. Houston kept the ball 67% of the time and worked 531 passes, a remarkable 265 more than the ‘Caps. They finished with 21 shots and 15 corner kicks, and this was a map of team clearances, per WhoScored:
As you can probably guess, Vancouver’s clearances are to the right. That image represents the flow of the game perfectly.
But Kei Kamara converted the first-half PK he drew, and after an Alberth Elis equalizer, Brek Shea burned right back Kevin Garcia on the break for the eventual winning goal. It was heavily against the run of play, but it did the Dynamo in. I can’t think of a more perfect representation of how the Whitecaps want to play.
So if the Dynamo were okay in possession, why didn’t they put five past the British Columbians? That answer comes down to their struggles in and around the final third with taking and creating good shots.
It is partially their inability to convert chances. Goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic made some nice saves, the Dynamo won the Expected Goals battle easily, and they put just seven of their 21 shots on target. But it’s moreso their struggles with the final pass, and how often they bungled the space they created in the final third with poor decision-making and execution.
Eric Alexander and Tomas Martinez played well in midfield, cycling the ball horizontally and using their attacking numbers effectively in the offensive half. They led the Dynamo’s longer possession sequences, which involved a level of probing and intelligent patterns that we’ve rarely seen from Cabrera’s teams. This forceful yet patient possession pushed and pulled Vancouver and created opportunities for Andrew Wenger and especially Elis to take defenders on 1v1 and get to the touchline. Once they got to the touchline, they did precious little, though:
That is their crossing map. They attempted 15 from open play. Not a single one was completed. Their problems with attacking ideas run deeper than that, but the above map illustrates them really well.
Their one goal, a deflected Elis shot towards the end of the first half, came as a result of a promising attacking sequence. Eric Alexander passed the ball from outside the center of the box into Martinez, who had his back to goal just ahead of the penalty spot, and Martinez then laid it off to the Honduran. Elis was in a good shooting position and the Dynamo got the bounce.
It would be one of the few bounces they would get in the game. But we shouldn’t diminish Houston’s real, present issues by writing them off as “well, it just wasn’t their day.” Certainly they’ll have better days, and the stats agree that they underperformed, but we saw similar indecisiveness in the Atlanta game. No matter how insanely good Elis has been, he can’t be that effective if he fails to manufacture threatening shots without the kind of space he had against ATL.
Cabrera has his team getting in the position to create scoring opportunities, and that’s the tough half of the battle. Now he has to get his side to actually create those opportunities, and then convert them.