With a season saving draw last weekend against Montreal, Dallas will play host to the Houston Dynamo for the rights to El Capitan this Sunday. After a blistering start to the season, Houston has fallen off the pace and are ninth place in the Western Conference with 31 points. Although Dallas is only one spot above in eighth, they have 37 points on the season and are tied on points for the final playoff spot with Portland.
In the first preview of the season, we talked about how Houston had finally shored up the defense to compliment its formidable attack. They were looking terrific for the first two months of the season and by all appearances seemed to have banished the summer woes that always brought them crashing down…welp, so much for that. Houston’s D still turned into a pumpkin, but much earlier than the midnight hour. Being top ten (in a bad way) in goals conceded isn’t new for the neighbors down south but being bottom ten in goals scored is. Through the first eight games of the season, Houston had 17 goals. Through the next 18 they’ve had 20. When the goals dried up, the results did too.
Houston’s reliance on the front three attackers to score all the goals is partially to blame. So is the lack of variety in tactics and formation. Everyone knows how dangerous Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis, Memo Rodriguez, and Tomas Martinez can be. And everyone adjusts their own style and tactics to limit the counter attacks and open space those four get. All four are on their normal pace to finish the season with the same general number of goals/assists as the always get. Manotas has 11 goals right now and will fall somewhere between the 10 from two years ago and the 19 from last year. Elis has seven and seven which is right in line with his past two seasons in Houston. Tomas Martinez has only a season and change of time in the league, but his goal scoring lines up with last season, it’s the assists that have dried up for him. Memo has had a breakthrough season, eclipsing his previous totals in MLS in just this one season with five goals and four assists. That the homegrown has become a legitimate threat out on the wing should be a celebration in Houston. The problem has been the long stretches between goals for the players. Memo, breakthrough season and all, hasn’t scored since May. Elis is currently on a nine-game scoreless run. Martinez is supposed the be the setup man but went on a 19-game run at the start of the season where he had one(!) assist. I know assists aren’t everything (as a former Pablo Aranguiz fan, believe me, I KNOW) but an end stat still shows some sort of involvement. The only guy who’s really held up his end of the bargain is Manotas. Other options attacking options on the bench include Romell Quioto and Tommy McNamara.
Of course, lack of production from other parts of the field hurts too. Boenik Garcia and Matias Vera, while sturdy protectors, are basically blackholes offensively. This is by design as Houston take the sit and counter approach as plan A, B, and C, but also speaks to the variety issue. A late run by a midfielder can open a plethora of actions that pull opposing teams apart. But Houston’s two holding mids stay holding all the time, leaving the creative burden to the front four plus either of the fullbacks who get forward. This rigid approach is partially why former coach Wilmer Cabrera was let go.
In the back, Houston still has Adam Lundkvist and AJ DeLaGarza at full back while old friend Maynor Figueroa occupies a centerback spot next to Aljaz Struna. Back in July when the Transfer Window opened, Houston brought in Jose Bizama from Chili to give the fullbacks some time off. All four of the back line are top six on the team in minutes played and Bizama offered a versatile option to help spell any of them. But he’s made only one appearance since being brought in. Goalkeeper Joe Willis will dutifully be between the sticks in this one.
On the last day of the Transfer Window being open, it appeared Houston pulled off two moves that would bolster the wilting attack. First was nabbing Christian Ramirez from LAFC, while the second was picking up Niko Hansen from Columbus. The Ramirez signing seemed to say that relief and rest would be coming for Manotas, since he is second on the team in minutes played. Hansen was/is viewed as a reclamation project. Ramirez already has one goal in his two appearances, so it will be interesting to see how he helps Houston in the stretch run.
If you will indulge me a moment, however, I believe it’s Hansen who could help usher in greater change. He’s a versatile attacking midfielder who can play out on the wing or centrally. He was named a “forward” by former coach Cabrera, but he never played there with Columbus and won’t be doing that in Houston either. Besides being cover incase Alberth Elis finally get’s his European move, Hansen could probably slot in as a box to box mid beside either Garcia or Vera. By making that one switch, Houston could create a new dynamic they desperately need. As for Dallas, this game will still be very much about breaking down a bunkered Houston team and not letting them get out on the counter. New coach and new players withstanding, Houston has been built this way over multiple years and won’t be able to change its stripes overnight.
Key Matchup: Matt Hedges vs Mauro Manotas
The one in form player for Houston right now is Manotas. He had two goals last week against Colorado and another two weeks ago against New York City FC. He is certainly one of the better strikers in the league and could give Hedges and Reto Zeigler plenty of headaches in this one. It will be on the pair of them to contain him and make sure they can keep cover for the fullbacks in case Elis or Rodriguez break down a wing.
Three Keys to the Game
1. VAR Help – Back in May, FC Dallas had a few shouts at being hurt by VAR. First was the penalty awarded to Houston from a mystery foul on Elis in the box. Then VAR doubled down and disallowed the game tying goal from Santiago Mosquera in the final minute of play. I hate using replay as an excuse for won/lost points, but with how tight things are for the playoffs, every little bit counts. In fact, we would be in playoff position with just the single point that draw would have provided.
2. Score Earlier – The beginning of this season saw Dallas scoring goals early in games, like first 15, 20 minutes early. But along with our funk in the standings, our goal scoring moved further back. Then last week happened and we waited waaaay late to get the draw. If Dallas can put one in early, it might put too much pressure on Houston and see them continue to stumble.
3. Tread Carefully – Same key as the last time we played. Struggles or not, Manotas and Elis are two supremely skilled players and can absolutely win games on their own. Not that they have done that much lately, but there’s nothing like a rivalry to bring out the best in someone.
The “rivalry” of Dallas vs Houston (in that order) has always been a tedious one. Neither team has really caught the other in the right situation or circumstance to add extra meaning to things. Yeah sure, Dallas vs Houston is an intra-state thing, but it feels too manufactured for these teams. Yes, it’s always important to win rivalry games, but right now Dallas is more concerned with making the playoffs, no matter who is on the field with them. Houston may have more skin in the game by the fact that they have had such an awful slide, and this is something to get up for. But another loss basically eliminates them from the playoffs. This is their final “trophy” so to speak. Either way, I expect Dallas to use last weeks alarm bells to plunge head first into the playoff fight. It’s going to need every last point it can muster these next few weeks to climb back in to a secure playoff spot. A 3-1 win would be a big result, and equal out the first games score line and deliver us El Capitan. Let’s get it done Hoops!