Know Your Playoff Enemy: Houston Dynamo
On The Fire’s MLS Playoff savant Stephen Mangat rocks you like a hurricane!
It’s playoff time in Chicago and the Houston Dynamo are in town. No time for drawn-out intros. So Dr. Jones, let’s get down to business.
HIT THE MUSIC!!!
Houston is a side filled with guys who have had success in the MLS playoffs. Last season they repped the East in the Cup Final. In 2009 they were the Western Conference finalists. In 2008 they made the CONCACAF Champions League and the Western Conference semis. In 2006 and 2007, they won the MLS Cup.
At the same time however, this Houston squad is a different vintage than the all-conquering Dynamo sides of 2006 and 2007. Those teams had Brian Ching at his best, Dwayne De Rosario, an up-and-coming Stuart Holden and Brad Davis, and super-solid vets Eddie Robinson, Pat Onstad, and Richard Mulrooney. This year’s team has Davis at his best, the rapidly maturing Will Bruin and Tally Hall, a very solid Bobby Boswell, unpredictable Oscar Boniek Garcia, and a still-not-yet-back-to-his-best Ricardo Clark. Beyond that, they’re not much of a threatening bunch – unless Mac Kandji has his head on straight.
In addition, this Houston team is vulnerable on the road. They have a -12 goal differential and only scored 17 goals in 17 games on the road. While they’ve been picking up their fair share of points since July (30 points in 23 games), they had more home games in the second half of the season because construction on BBVA Compass Arena was not completed in time for the start of the regular season. Plus, their big surge happened in July and they’ve been far from great in their past five games (2-2-1).
Houston’s coach Dominic Kinnear will probably set his squad in a 4-3-3 with two hard workers in the midfield and playmaker Brad Davis on the left. Bobby Boswell will anchor the defense alongside Jermaine Taylor, and up top Will Bruin will be the target and main threat with two speedy guys on either side.
Kinnear could also set them up in a 4-4-2, though it’s not too much different than the 4-3-3 — in which Oscar Boniek Garcia drops back from right-sided attacker to right midfielder. This provides a bit more defensive cover on the right. In fact, the Houston 4-4-2 is a bit of a hybrid, as Boniek Garcia is committed to attacking from a midfield position. He’s not much of a defender, but his presence in this set-up does slightly change things. Watch him, as he provides Kinnear with tactical flexibility and should provide a clue as to how Houston will approach the match.
Tally Hall is definitely in the top half of MLS goalies, and I’d venture to say that there are only a handful better. He’s a big guy, a great shot-stopper, and he was crucial last season in Houston’s run to the Cup Final. At the same time, the road goal differential (see above) begs the question on how well Hall organizes his back four.
This team sorely misses Geoff Cameron. The USMNT starter moved to Stoke City (UK) midseason and the Houston defense, which propelled them to the Cup Final last season, hasn’t been the same since. Both Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor are solid, above-average MLS defenders, but they’re far from spectacular. On the left, Corey Ashe provides speed and an attacking threat to combine with Brad Davis. On the right, Kofi Sarkodie is in his second year, has regularly appeared for US youth national teams, and won the job from Canadian Andre Hainault this season. Sarkodie also gets forward, though I don’t remember anything more about him. My bad on that one.
Brad Davis is still running the show in midfield and he’s one of the league’s best. Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark will play to Davis’ right. Both will work hard and play smart despite their uninspiring passing. Moffat can shoot from distance and Clark’s more athletic, but their job is basically the same thing: provide defensive cover, win the ball, keep the ball, and get it to the attackers.
Davis is the guy that makes this team tick and he’s real class. His crosses from open play or from dead balls are excellent. Plus, he’s a tricky dribbler and good passer. In fact, I haven’t seen many MLS players play at Davis’s level over the course of the past few seasons. He’s consistently class and the Dynamo’s key man.
Will Bruin is turning into a beast. While he’s cooled off during the latter part of this season, he’s still a danger and the focal point of the forward line. Bruin has size, decent speed, good touch, and can finish — basically just like Brian Ching in his prime. Bruin will be flanked by fast players who are a step below top quality, but dangerous nonetheless. It’ll be two from Mac Kandji, Calen Carr, and Oscar Boniek Garcia.
Kandji is big, fast, and real threat if he gets going. He’s also super inconsistent, has questionable touch, and can’t be relied upon to finish chances. Boniek Garcia is smaller, more skillful, and has scored a few goals this season (including a rocket against Philly). He hasn’t quite hit his stride yet in MLS, but he’s a potential match winner and can drop back to provide some tactical flexibility (see above). Former Fire man Calen Carr wears a helmet and buzzes around the field. At his best, Carr causes problems and stretches defenses. Whichever trio of attackers plays will be far from the best Chicago’s seen all season. That said, they’re not a bunch of spazzes…
How can Chicago win?
1. Be mindful on set pieces. The Chicago midfield and defenders will need to be focused during all corners and free kicks, as Houston are big and Brad Davis serves a great ball. Also, the Fire will need to react quickly to second balls after Houston wins the initial ones in the air. This match is Sean Johnson’s chance to prove that’s he’s more than a mere shot-stopper and show that he can command a box.
2. Don’t let Brad Davis run the game. While Chris Rolfe and Pavel Pardo provide Chicago’s attacking precision from relatively set areas of the field, Brad Davis provides inspiration all over the place. Normally, he’ll be in the center-left of midfield or on the flank, but he also floats into the middle and into the space between the midfield and defense to support and create the attack. He also shows up on the other side of the field, especially following one of his set pieces. Simply put, Chicago will need to tightly mark Davis or he’ll make them crazy.
3. Get at the Houston defense. Houston’s defenders are a very solid bunch, but they’re really nothing special. Nyarko, MacDonald, and Rolfe (if he can get on the ball) are a talented attacking trio and should be able to do some damage so long as they get the service, and FINISH.
4. Free Chris Rolfe. For the past two games, Chris Rolfe has been shackled. Houston has the players to do this to Chicago’s leading goal-scorer again (Moffat or Clark could drop a little deeper and occupy Rolfe’s favorite spaces), so Frank Klopas needs to brainstorm with Rolfe and figure out how to get him the ball.
5. Get performances from others. When Chicago was playing at its best, it seemed as if a different player or two each week was making a big contribution in addition to the usual suspects of MacDonald, Nyarko, and Rolfe. Whether it was Alex, Alvaro Fernandez, Daniel Paladini, or Dominic Oduro, others made a difference. The playoffs are a time when someone else must make an impact, as opponents will plan to neutralize Mackie, Rolfie, and Patty.
Best of luck, Chicago. I’ll be pulling for the Fire, so enjoy the game and have a (hopefully) Happy Halloween!
– On The Fire’s Stephen Mangat will dress as Andrew Hauptman for Halloween. Dolla dolla bills y’all.