We back! MLS has returned, and to kick the season off, the Houston Dynamo are hosting Atlanta United in an Univision-televised Saturday afternoon match.
The eyes of the MLS world will be back on the Western Conference runner-ups at 2:30pm CT. It was a relatively quiet offseason for the Dynamo, as they kept their acquisition list to 21-year-old Venezuelan defender Alejandro Fuenmayor and a few intra-MLS depth findings. Their most notable moves were departures: Cubo Torres was sold to Santos Laguna, Alex bolted for South Korea, and Ricardo Clark signed with Columbus as a free agent.
Without a ton of obvious needs, it makes sense to conserve resources and trust the current squad to keep up last year’s success, especially given the youthful nature of that core. We’ll presumably see the front three of Romell Quioto, Mauro Manotas, and Alberth Elis on day one.
Unless Wilmer Cabrera wants to tinker (which he is apt to do), the Quioto-Manotas-Elis trio will be supported by a midfield of Juan David Cabezas, Eric Alexander — or Darwin Ceren, possibly — and Oscar Boniek Garcia, who may be filling in for the suspended Tomas Martinez in this game. Here’s what the lineup should look like:
The backline is a guess — I could see Adolfo Machado switching with Fuenmayor, or Philippe Senderos getting in somehow, or even Dylan Remick overtaking DaMarcus Beasley at left back (admittedly unlikely). I’d expect Joe Willis to start over former FC Dallas keeper Chris Seitz given the performances he turned in last postseason in relief of Tyler Deric, but that’s also an uncertainty.
Andrew Wenger could slip in here somehow because of the imaginary rule that seems to prevent Elis and Quioto from playing together at the same time. That wouldn’t make sense to me barring an ailment of some kind, though, and nothing is listed on the MLS injury page, so I’ll assume everyone’s healthy.
Atlanta made a big splash in their expansion season, hanging 70 goals and crashing the Eastern Conference playoff race on the back of a talented, energetic attack and a heavy dose of Tata Martino ball: They hounded the ball with constant, coordinated front-heavy pressing and used patient ball-movement to create opportunities in transition.
They were fun to watch, and the attacking pair of Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez was ruthlessly efficient. A thrilling penalty-kick loss to Columbus in the knockout round left them unsatisfied, though, so they were extremely active for a second straight offseason. Darlington Nagbe, traded from Portland for a huge gob of cash, arrived to play as a No. 8. World superstar 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco signed to replace Yamil Asad on the wing. They upgraded the right back position with Argentine 23-year-old Franco Escobar.
Their weakness is, for the moment, in midfield, as they sold d-mid Carlos Carmona and have not replaced him, leaving a pretty gaping hole next to Nagbe in Tata’s 4-2-3-1. The Dynamo should be looking to exploit whatever reserve plays there, be it Chris McCann, Homegrown Chris Goslin or a 34-year-old Jeff Larentowicz.
Barco pulled a quad in training, making us wait four to six weeks for his much-anticipated MLS debut. In his place will be one of reigning Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel or exciting 17-year-old Andrew Carleton, who showed out big time in preseason. I, along with most, am cheering for Carleton to grab his first league start, but I’d guess Gressel gets the nod:
To beat Atlanta, Houston will have to be safe enough in possession to draw out Atlanta’s energetic pressing and then use the front three’s speed to break into the resulting space on the back side. They can’t afford to give away the ball in bad positions, because the Five Stripes will jump all over it.
The Dynamo have to be more versatile in their tactical approach this season — they have to be able to create from attacking possession — but going back to last season’s sit-deep-and-counter ethos would not be a bad idea against a team that can struggle when forced to break down packed-in opponents. They should be content to situate themselves in a deeper defensive shape and suffocate the central channels, forcing Almiron away from goal and creating easier transition lanes.
Possible center backs Fuenmayor and Leonardo will have to stay tight to one another and try to close off Martinez’s favorite “A” gap, where he has scored many of his MLS goals. He loves to hit the space between opposing center backs hard, and he’s become an expert at getting in behind using that one run. Cabezas’s ability to mark and track Martinez will be a big decider of how well Houston are able to stifle Atlanta’s firepower.
Watch it unfold on Univision.