Five World Cup veterans. Leading candidates for Most Valuable Player and Goalkeeper of the Year. Four finals appearances and two MLS Cups in the past nine seasons. That may sound like the type of resume that only big-spending, high fliers like the LA Galaxy or Seattle Sounders might possess. However, the team to which I am referring is in fact the Houston Dynamo. While rarely one of the prettiest teams to watch in MLS, the Dynamo has consistently been among the league's elite, developing or shaping stars from Dwayne De Rosario to Stuart Holden, Brian Ching to Geoff Cameron.
After nine years of solid play and underdog playoff runs in November, the Dynamo this year has entered the second phase of its existence. Gone is longtime head coach Dominic Kinnear, and in is the Scottish
traitor to all that is right and good coach Owen Coyle. The jury is still out on whether Coyle can maintain or improve upon the Dynamo's impressive historical record, an objective that will demand victories at home against struggling opposition, the scenario he will be faced with Friday night when the Red Bulls come to town. The question facing Jesse Marsch in the opposite technical area is simple: how can he stop Coyle's middling Dynamo team, and thus pull the Red Bulls out of their recent funk? Without further ado, let's take a look at how to beat the Houston Dynamo.
Strengths of the Opponent
Any time an MLS team has a winger-fullback tandem that has played together consistently on the club level, that side of the field is usually a strength. Any time an MLS team has a winger-fullback tandem that has played together in a World Cup game, that side of the field is a formidable, undeniable strength.
In Brad Davis and Damarcus Beasley, Houston possess two seasoned veterans and two of the best American chance creators in the league. Given Davis' tendency to drift inside, Beasley, particularly in his last few games, has provided a threat on the overlap, similarly to Roy Miller's penchant for overlapping beyond Thierry Henry late last year.
Beasley and Davis -- who should be available after missing out last week with a knee injury -- each have the type of killer left feet that, in MLS history, can only be matched by Justin Mapp, pre-Reading Bobby Convey, and precious few others. In fact, the former-Metro Davis trails only Steve Ralston and the little known Landon Donovan in all-time MLS assists. With 6' 2'' target forward Will Bruin lurking in the penalty area, crosses from Houston's left side will be particularly dangerous to the Red Bulls' inexperienced central defensive pairing.
Furthermore, Houston's Giles Barnes has raised his game to new heights this year, given a bit more freedom in Coyle's scheme relative to Kinnear's as something close to a roaming number 10. While Red Bulls fans rejoiced at the news that Kemar Lawrence would not depart for international duty until after the game, the other edge of that sword is that his fellow Jamaican international, Barnes, will also be available for selection. Barnes poses a threat all over the field, drifting wide, moving up the field to combine with Bruin, or dropping deeper into midfield to give the Dynamo more of a compact shape and to help control possession. And, for good measure, he's not too shabby on dead balls either.
Weaknesses of the Opponent
If one were to ask a Dynamo fan about the worst transaction in franchise history, every single one would cite the 2009 trade in which Houston acquired a promising target striker Cam Weaver in exchange for bench player Chris Wondolowski. 97 goals later, Houston fans are right to wonder what might have been had they held onto the 2012 MLS MVP. While less obvious, the decision not to re-sign center back Bobby Boswell following the 2013 season, in retrospect, looks almost as costly a decision.
Throughout all of last season and the beginning of this one, the Dynamo have struggled to find an adequate central defensive pairing, let alone one that could match the achievements of the Boswell-Geoff Cameron tandem that anchored the team's defense from 2008-2012. Although Coyle and technical director Matt Jordan brought in Spanish defender Raul Rodriguez over the offseason, he has been slotted into the right fullback position in recent games, meaning the Red Bulls will likely face the same central defensive duo of Jermaine Taylor and David Horst that they demolished in a 4-0 game early last season. Taylor and Horst have improved to a certain degree, with the latter particularly strong in aerial situations, but still represent the Dynamo's greatest vulnerability.
How to Beat the Dynamo
Despite a recent string of bad results, Jesse Marsch has indicated that, for better or for worse, he will stick to his guns and maintain his high press, possession-oriented strategy. This tactical approach could result in different outcomes, depending on how Coyle chooses to deploy the lynchpin of his midfield, Giles Barnes.
If he chooses to push Barnes up the field into a second striker role, a tactic he has been much more likely to use at home, then the Red Bulls should expect to control the majority of possession, as they have done throughout the year against teams with only two men in the center of the midfield, with Houston looking to find Barnes on the counter attack. However, Coyle could choose to drop Barnes a bit deeper into the center of midfield. Barnes played a much more withdrawn role in Houston's last fixture against NYCFC, which helped them to overrun the blue team's two man midfield for much of the game.
In the former scenario, Houston will take on a shape similar to that of the Philadelphia Union two weeks ago, in which Maidana (in the Barnes role) pushed up closer to the target forward Conor Casey (in the Will Bruin role). That left the team's destroyer in the #6 role (Brian Carroll for the Union, Luis Garrido for Houston) and a box-to-box distributor (Vincent Nogueira for Philly, Ricardo Clark for the Dynamo) to disrupt the Red Bulls midfield and to prevent all of New York's possession from becoming meaningful goal-scoring opportunities.
In the latter scenario, Houston would come out in a formation similar to the Columbus Crew side whom the Red Bulls vanquished on the road early in the year, with Barnes' role mirroring that of the roaming Federico Higuain. This gameplan challenged New York's primacy in possession, but gave the Red Bulls the opportunity to pick off the ball from a team trying to build out of the back.
The way in which Coyle chooses to use Barnes does not preordain how the game will go or even how Houston will approach the game as a whole. However, the Red Bulls must be careful not to fall into the trap of holding onto the ball without creating good chances if Houston chooses to bunker and counter.
The best way to achieve this goal is perhaps best demonstrated by the Red Bulls themselves, albeit a former incarnation. In their first matchup last year, the team was able to draw Ricardo Clark far up the field and combine once they got in behind to great success. Pulling apart the hard hitting combo of Clark and Honduran international Luis Garrido will require clever interplay between the trio in the center of midfield, who will look to spring Lloyd Sam or an overlapping fullback behind the defense.
This type of combination play will also be necessary to get behind the backline. While Horst and Taylor are beasts in the air, they are less skilled with their feet. Playing off Bradley Wright-Phillips -- or, as Jesse Marsch mentioned in training this week, maybe Anatole Abang -- rather than pinging in crosses or balls over the top will be the best way to get him in the types of positions that got him a hat trick against these same two centerbacks last year.
On the defensive side, Chris Duvall will once again have his hands full with Brad Davis and an overlapping Damarcus Beasley. Just like the play in which he conceded a goal to Bradford Jamieson IV against LA, Duvall got beat badly by Marco Pappa, leading to a goal this past weekend in Seattle. Duvall will have to be better in those types of one-on-one situations, and will require help from Sam -- not only by tracking back, but also by pinning Beasley back by being a potent threat offensively -- to lock down Houston's left side.
Moreover, the Red Bulls center defensive duo -- which, according to reports this week from training, will likely consist of Karl Ouimette and Roy Miller, due to Perrinelle's suspension -- will have to gel quickly and muscle up against the brute force of Will Bruin. With Copa America and the Gold Cup on the horizon, the Red Bulls will have to get used to playing with a makeshift back four, an excuse that will not suffice as a reason for conceding goals come Friday night.
What do you think? Can the Red Bulls grab all three points in Houston this Friday night? Should Jesse Marsch change his approach at all? Let us know in the comments!