Friday night’s banger of a game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Houston Dynamo will not soon be forgotten. It showcased both the Dynamo’s red-hot attackers and their incompetent defenders as well as Vancouver’s own problematic shape and comical inability to finish chances. It was nutty late night soccer.
Some thoughts on what transpired:
— Vancouver knew going in that without Juan David Cabezas in the lineup, Houston are not threatening with the ball at their feet deep in midfield. Eric Alexander and Darwin Ceren don’t stretch teams or control tempo in possession, so the Whitecaps’ two midfielders in their 4-4-2 sat off the ball and tried to coax low-percentage long balls to the wings.
For most of the first half, it worked — letting Alexander and his partner (Boniek Garcia after Ceren’s 14th-minute injury) sit on the ball allowed Vancouver to simplify their pressing shape and focus attention on other areas. Forwards Anthony Blondell and Kei Kamara could buzz around those deep midfielders while the Caps’ mids took slightly wider positions to further discourage balls to the flanks, where the Dynamo create many of their chances.
Vancouver are good at nothing if they are not good at winning the ball, and that’s what they did with Felipe and Aly Ghazal. When Alexander and Boniek tried to pass into the Caps’ defensive shape, they were shut off and hit in transition by Blondell and Alphonso Davies more than a few times.
There were a couple instances where switches to the flanks worked, but those were few and far between due to Vancouver’s focus on shuttering that element of the Dynamo.
It didn’t help that there were no other viable distribution outlets for Houston. They tried to build up Alberth Elis’s right flank a lot, but out-of-position right back Adolfo Machado rarely provided overloads out of fear for Davies’s speed in the other direction, and he didn’t add much of anything in the aggressive forward passing department:
The Dynamo need to be able to create overloads on the right side with Elis (or now with Quioto, if that late 1st half switch was permanent). Machado is not providing those overlaps pic.twitter.com/FKY9noBwfN— Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21) May 12, 2018
That was sent at halftime, but the point stands: the Dynamo were often uninventive and stagnant in possession, particularly without a game-breaking passer on the field. Vancouver dared them to keep the ball.
— In what seems like a microcosm of the Whitecaps’ season, the Dynamo still found a first-half breakthrough, and it came from the flaws of Vancouver’s system.
If the two central midfielders drift wide to guard against switches to the wings, they release space in the middle. Tomas Martinez should then be able to slot himself in that new space. That’s what happened on his 35th-minute goal:
My job is to overcomplicate the game in order to make it seem like I'm smart but usually it's just like "hey see that guy literally right in the middle of your 2 d-mids and 2 CBs? You should probably mark him." #VANvHOU pic.twitter.com/Jtg8CeJy6H— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 12, 2018
Vancouver tightened that up as the game went on. They still afforded time and space to Martinez, who used it to efficiently connect play around the final third, but the Dynamo’s wingers found more opportunities on the ball as a result of the Whitecaps having to tighten the middle of the field. It’s a trade-off.
— Houston got better as the game went on at breaking Vancouver’s “we don’t want the ball, you have it” shape. They did this by eschewing the passing part of deep central midfield possession and instead expediting the ball’s progress into the final third. Boniek dribbled and weaved, Martinez and Mauro Manotas dropped deep, and the wingers checked to the ball.
As a result of those newer, positive actions, attacking players shifted positions more and thus were able to disjoint Vancouver’s zonal/man-marking midfield defensive system more easily. Romell Quioto cut in from the flank, and Boniek set up shop near Martinez. It was much more fluid and created more effective opportunities on goal.
— This game came down to the Dynamo’s complete inability to defend at crucial times, though. They fell asleep on a late first half set piece and allowed Vancouver’s center backs to combine for a goal and then, after Manotas’s late go-ahead score, they let Kendall Waston (arguably the most effective set piece threat in the entire league) free on the back-post for a last-gasp equalizer.
Vancouver should have had a bunch of goals before that, too. They would have had their own go-ahead goal if Brek Shea had finished an absolute sitter in front of the net. The Dynamo, uh, don’t defend very well.
— One final thing: Wilmer Cabrera’s tendency to sub out his best attackers midway through the second half is inexplicable and troubling. Pulling Elis for Arturo Alvarez in a 1-1 game in the 73rd-minute does not make sense. Neither does subbing Luis Gil on for Martinez two minutes earlier. He’s done this in other recent games as well. Play your best players in close games!