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Dynamo have work to do to get back into playoff race

The Dynamo keep dropping results and are now seven points out of sixth place.

MLS: Sporting KC at Houston Dynamo John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

After two recent games in which the referee was one of the biggest stories, the Houston Dynamo are a team in flux. They combusted in losses at home to Philadelphia and Sporting KC, culminating in that crazy stoppage time blowup against SKC. The Tomas Martinez red was a bad call and possibly a six-point swing, but Houston now are tasked with putting their heads back on straight.

They’ve lost three straight in MLS and haven’t won in five. In a competitive Western Conference race, they are seven points back of the red line. Their path to the playoffs requires a serious run of results, and with a tough six-game gauntlet coming up (plus today’s very important US Open Cup semi against LAFC), they look unlikely to make that run.

They face Columbus, RSL, FC Dallas, the Red Bulls, Dallas again, and Portland before a couple of games against Orlando and San Jose in late September. Their form of late does not provide much hope.

The Dynamo have dearly missed Juan David Cabezas. They’ve become fatally weak in defensive midfield. No combination of Cabezas replacements, from Darwin Ceren to Boniek Garcia to Eric Bird, has worked yet. They’ve lacked the distribution and passing qualities that they needed to improve as a possession team, a point of emphasis this season.

Issues deep in midfield exasperate a mistake-prone and nonathletic backline. The losses of AJ DeLaGarza and Dylan Remick, neither of whom has played a minute this season, have hurt more than expected. Wilmer Cabrera has yet to find a four-man backline that is good enough to play week-in, week-out.

Adolfo Machado is not a right back, and Kevin Garcia is not an MLS player. Adam Lundqvist has been fine defensively, but he does not get forward much at all, and relying on Philippe Senderos (33 and not exactly fleet of foot) to take charge of the central defense has a very low ceiling.

Andrew Wenger and Alejandro Fuenmayor should play every game on the backline, and DaMarcus Beasley should play every minute that his 36-year-old legs can carry him.

The Dynamo have been unlucky with injuries and some recent VAR debacles. They also have made a lot of bad mistakes defensively and continue to be poor at grinding out results. They lose more points from leads than any team in MLS except D.C. United:

Cabrera too often takes off his attackers unnecessarily and commits to sitting deeper with leads. It’s a harmful over-reliance on defenders who can’t defend, and a lot of the time, it fails.

Alberth Elis has gone cold after his red-hot start to the year. Still, he’s third in MLS in xG+xA, more productive than Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sebastian Giovinco and Ignacio Piatti. His xG+xA per 96 figure is better than Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Darwin Quintero. Elis has been dominant.

So has Romell Quioto. He’s fourth in MLS in xA and is tied for third in the league with 11 assists. Mauro Manotas, tied for fifth with 11 goals, has been the primary beneficiary of Quioto’s top-five assist production. It could be argued that all three are having career years.

And yet, the Dynamo are well off the playoff pace. Wasting Elis at this level would be devastating, especially considering the valuable overseas offers they’re presumably getting for him. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Elis were sold this winter. Houston need something out of this year.

They were supposed to take another step forward in 2018. That Western Conference Finals run was supposed to be a sign of things to come, a welcome success from a rebuild season. Their core is talented enough to compete for a home playoff game, just as they did last year. If they don’t find their way back to the red line, this season will go down as a missed opportunity.

That’s why their U.S. Open Cup run, and the chance at winning a trophy, is so important. It’s a chance to salvage something and take some silverware in the process.

If they lose to LAFC on today, they’ll be stuck with trying to climb back into the playoff race. It looks increasingly unlikely that they will complete that uphill climb.