It’s the Texas Derby this Saturday as Dallas travels south to the armpit to take on Houston. The Dynamo have had a strong start to the season. They are currently fifth in the Western Conference with 16 points but have played two fewer games than everyone else in front of them. After the draw last week, Dallas stayed still at fourth place in the West, with 17 points, one point ahead of Houston.
The battle for El Capitan begins anew. Both Texas teams are off to good starts and it appears we may have an actual rivalry with something on the line this year. Bragging rights have been about the only thing to play for over the past few seasons, and although I love to beat Houston in everything, having so little on the line lately has kind of dragged this derby down a notch or three.
Houston has been one of the surprises of the season through this first quarter. After a great run two years back, the orange team came crashing back down last season. They had a strong attack, but the defense couldn’t hold up. But Houston went into the offseason with one goal in mind: shore up the defense. To that end, they brought in five new defensive faces including former Dallas fan favorite Maynor Figueroa. Fig is now a starting center back along with Aljaz “Kiki” Struna who was bought from Palermo in the winter. The changes seem to be working as Houston has only given up eight goals this far (but again, through two less games). Adam Lundkvist is now the full time left back after being a spot starter for most of last year and A.J. DeLaGarza has kept his hold on the other fullback spot. The ever-inscrutable Damarcus Beasley has yet to make an appearance due to a knee injury.
The midfield also sees a new face added to the group in winter signing Matias Vera. Vera is more of a defensive mid and is sturdy in defense, but also able to move the ball forward when required. The other two central mids need nothing more than introduction. Boniek Garcia is still fighting the fight (and just passed 200 appearances for the club) and Tomas Martinez is still linking up play and distributing to the attackers. And boy do they have some attackers. Mauro Manotas is the tip of the spear striker who has three goals and four assists so far. Alberth Elis takes control of the right wing and has four goals and four assists on the season. The “selfish” one of the bunch is Memo Rodriguez who has no assists but four goals. The three attackers plus Martinez make up one of the most lethal counter attacks in the league and their production is everything for Houston - literally - those four are the only players who have scored on the season.
Houston’s style is still tied to how head coach Wilmer Cabrerra likes to play – fast and on the break. Houston is averaging almost 15 shots per game and converting two of those. They are still content to cede possession and hit a counter, but not as extreme as before. The 4-2-3-1 formation they play has the two outside wings (Elis and Rodriguez) play high up the field, more like a 4-3-3. As noted above, the entire attack revolves around only 4 players, but that doesn’t mean no one else is involved. DeLaGarza and Lundkvist will get forward to support the attack and Boniek Garcia averages almost two key passes a game. The peripheral players may not show up on the stat sheet, but they offer a strong support for the… Dynamic-o front four (sorry, couldn’t help it).
Dallas has played a more possession-oriented game this season, as coach Luchi has refined last season’s team. That plays into Houston’s hands, with the fast counter attacks and all, but Dallas is also playing very strong in the back. Even though the Hoops have played two more games, the defense has only given up nine goals – compared to Houston’s eight. Wing play is going to be very important this week. Michael Barrios and his wing partner (one of Santiago Mosquera, Pablo Aranguiz, or strangely, Paxton Pomykal) will need to help with possession instead of being pressure release valves. Reggie Cannon and Ryan Hollingshead must be careful dealing with the Houston wingers. Hollingshead likes to charge forward and then move centrally into the box, but if he’s caught too far upfield and out of position, Elis will be torching that wing.
Key Matchup: Ryan Hollingshead vs Alberth Elis
As just mentioned, Elis will be Hollingshead’s main responsibility this game. Elis is quick and powerful and an overall monster to deal with. Hollingshead has had a solid season, popping up in both boxes to deliver key stops or key passes (even a goal!). His ability to contribute on the offensive side will be directly tied to how comfortable Luchi feels about leaving Elis alone out on the wing. If he allows Ryan to venture forward, the whole defense will need to be aware.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Quick Goal – Dallas has started games very quickly this season. They have scored a first half goal in six of their nine games and five goals within the opening 15 minutes. Their record is 4-1-1 those games.
2. More Attackers, Please – I think we can all agree that Paxton is a boss. We can also agree that his talents do not serve this team nearly as well when he’s out on the wing. Keep Paxton in the midfield and keep another attacker out on the wing and maybe the scoring issues from last game go away.
3. Tread Carefully – I can’t stress this enough – Dallas cannot be caught out on a break. Houston’s front four will feast if they are given time and space on the counter. It might feel sluggish on offense by keeping the full backs pinned back, but it might be something to consider. Just don’t be surprised to see fewer runs from Cannon and Hollingshead in this one.
This Houston team isn’t any less dangerous than in previous season’s. The attack has been there for a while and they can score against any team. But in shoring up the defense this off-season, Houston appears to be a formidable foe for the long run this season. Before it was more about shootouts and track meets. Now Houston has more defense to prop up it’s lethality up front. This is just the first battle of the season for El Capitan. But the stakes will go up as we start to jostle for positioning in the playoffs later. This derby needed a jolt of electricity with real stakes tied to it. For now, the first shots fired will just be the warm up.