Both the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew SC sit at or near the bottom of their respective conferences after seven weeks with identical 1-2-3 records. That's disappointing for both clubs, though Crew SC had higher expectations coming into the season.
The difference is that the Dynamo have at times been prolific offensively, while Columbus has often not looked settled, and so the perception gap between the two teams again expands.
But Houston has come back down to earth as its defensive issues have pulled the rug out again and again, while the Black & Gold are coming off arguably their best performance of the season and first three points after a 3-2 win over NYCFC last week.
We could be in for another high-scoring affair on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus.
Here is a deeper look at Houston and some things to think about ahead of the game.
What is Houston in Year 2 of the Coyle era?
The first season under Owen Coyle was not an especially memorable one for a club that has had its share of success, but most people were willing to write it off as a year of adjustment for the headman — Major League Soccer is notoriously unfriendly to foreign coaches who have not had experience with the league.
So where does that leave the Orange men now?
So far, Houston has continued its 4-2-3-1 look, and it's been relatively consistent in personnel choices. Long-time striker Will Bruin is up top, and has seemed to round out his game more early in this campaign with better distribution in his hold-up play, which allows the Dynamo to bring wingers Giles Barnes — essentially a striker — and Andrew Wenger into the mix. Wenger came out of the gates flying through the first two or three weeks, but has since quieted down a bit. The same could be said for Bruin. Barnes, meanwhile, has had some success against the Black & Gold in the past.
Newcomer Christian Maidana was the big offseason acquisition. After becoming one of the league's top chance creators in 2015, Chaco Maidana brings that to the Orange this season playing in the No. 10 role. He's not really a flashy attacking mid, and often pulls wide to swing in crosses. He's second on the team with 2.49 key passes per 96 minutes (American Soccer Analysis' stat to best judge a per-game contribution, since games are actually longer than 90 minutes).
Ricardo Clark has been in the midfield seemingly for forever and Alex has been the more defensive-minded of the two deeper mids. He is the pivot, and his touch percentage of 10.3 percent is tops on the team.
The goal-scoring increase early in the year has come from quality and efficiency, as opposed to quantity of opportunities, as Houston sits middle of the pack with 13.3 shots per game. But its 5.3 shots on target per game gives it one of the most efficient percentages in MLS. The Dynamo are also second in the league with nine percent of their shots coming from inside the 6-yard box.
How do they get there? It's about passing the ball, getting it wide and crossing it in. At least 25 crosses off the feet of Houston players on Saturday is about par for the course. Both Bruin and Wenger are quality aerial targets, as is center back David Horst, and Barnes loves to ghost in for rebounds or second balls.
Houston is the most left-sided team in MLS when it comes to the attack, so look for an overload on that side with left back DeMarcus Beasley combining with Alex, Maidana and Barnes.
In other words, Ethan Finlay can't let what will be important defensive responsibilities keep him from building on a bright attacking effort a week ago, while Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful have to be heads up in their movement, because the Dynamo will be happy to shift the ball into space behind them, pull the defense out of shape and cross in balls to create some panic in the box and, ideally for the men in orange, goals.
A hot mess in defense
For everything that seemed exciting about Houston early on, the deficiencies in its own half has been crippling. The Dynamo are the only team in MLS to allow four or more goals multiple times this season (three times, including once to a New York Red Bulls team that otherwise has scored just one goal this season).
It hasn't so much been just the back line, which is an experienced group both individually and together, but more a failure in team defense, where team shape and communication has let the Dynamo down.
Take a look at what Houston did against the Los Angeles Galaxy last week.
This is a loss-of-possession chart. Houston is red, attacking to the right (see my handy, perfectly-scrawled arrows), while Los Angeles is blue, attacking to the left. The Dynamo actually won the possession battle handily, as well as had significantly more passes, so a greater number of turnovers is understandable. But it's not all about quantity.
Notice where the Galaxy lost possession — only twice all game in their own half of the field. Meanwhile, 50 percent of Houston's losses of possession came in its own half, opening it up for major danger.
The Dynamo are fourth in MLS in number of times per game they are dispossessed, at 15.2 The top three are New York City FC, New England Revolution and D.C. United. All are sides that have struggled. The fifth-worst team in the league? Columbus. And the issue of glaring giveaways in bad spots is something I've talked about here before.
Translation — turnovers are bad, but are inevitable, so it's all about managing where those giveaways happen. This could be the difference on Saturday. With two teams meeting who have hurt themselves before, whichever side takes care of the ball best in their own half could be the one that wins.
A tipping point?
Was last week some sort of tipping point for Houston? A 4-1 pasting by the LA Galaxy may have been a spotlight on everything that's wrong with this team, or it may have been a shot in the arm to send the Dynamo on the road to recovery. It's a mystery how Houston will respond this week, and what changes it may bring about. Because Coyle said there will be changes.
It's uncertain exactly what that means, though Coyle has been pretty married to his 4-2-3-1 base formation. It could mean a start for designated player Erick Torres, who has been AWOL since going to Houston. Cubo did energize the team off the bench last week, though. Of course, Bruin might be more of the physical, hold-up guy that could be useful on the road. This will also be an interesting matchup to watch from a Columbus standpoint, as Crew SC will be without its most physical center back in Gaston Sauro. In light of that, the team has to be thrilled that Tyson Wahl's red card was rescinded, but he'll still have to be ready to challenge Bruin, and winning balls in the air hasn't always been Wahl's strength (and it seems unlikely that Amro Tarek would get the nod here).
It could also mean a start for Leonel Miranda or Oscar Boniek Garcia, who has not featured as much in 2016. Miranda actually leads the team in key passes per 96 with 2.76, while Boniek is at 2.21.
Defensively, Sheanon Williams has been out but could return and replace Jalil Anibaba at right back, while goalkeeper Tyler Deric — who has been a bright young keeper the last season or two — is back in training after missing the first seven weeks of the season with injury. Recent starter Joe Willis has been a career backup and Deric would certainly be an upgrade between the posts for the Dynamo.
Considering the problems that have sunk Houston thus far, I don't know if one or two player swaps are enough to make the difference, especially from an offensive standpoint, but any sort of shakeup could help the Dynamo, not to mention leave a little bit of uncertainty for Crew SC as far as who or what to prepare for. Might Coyle throw something totally different out there with the hopes of firing up his team, catching Columbus off guard and getting an early goal or two?
This could be a week that we see things continue to normalize for both teams, which is good news for Crew SC.
Much was made of patience during what has been an early-season lull for the Black & Gold, and the underlying numbers have backed that up. Certainly back-to-back games against defensively shaky clubs can go a long way in getting the Columbus attack back on its feet.
Consider that through six games, Crew SC's expected goal differential is -1.52. Now, any negative number is not good, but a sluggish start combined with a tough schedule is certainly a challenge. The context, though, is that the team's actual goal differential is -3. So, by those standards, Columbus has been a little unlucky to either not score more goals or allow fewer.
On the flip side, Houston's GD-xGD is 2.1, meaning it has exceeded its expected goal differential for the better by that many goals. The idea being that, statistically, things regress toward the mean. Individually, both Bruin and Wenger probably overachieved in the first few weeks of the season, and that may not be sustainable, as the most recent games have shown.
If the Dynamo have been a bit lucky and Crew SC has been a bit unlucky, the scale may continue to shift again this week, and that's good news for the home side.