Major League Soccer has two new expansion teams this season, yet the Houston Dynamo may be the most interesting new team in the league.
Not new as in newly created, the Dynamo did that in 2006, but such a drastic change from a year ago. New head coach Wilmer Cabrera has brought his style of play and is looking to reinvigorate forward Erick Torres, who scored his first goal in three seasons with the club last year.
Wide players Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto also add a new dynamic with speed and a desire to push forward on the wings.
This week, Columbus Crew SC are tasked with figuring out this remade side with only one competitive match to build from.
“It’s very different than the Houston teams we’ve seen in the past,” Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp said this week.
“A little bit more dynamic going forward I would say. They’re relying on more than just one guy like they did in the past with Giles Barnes or something like that. They have three guys in the attack that can be dangerous one v. one, midfielders that like to move up and support them.”
It’s hard to judge any MLS side after just one week, but the Dynamo looked promising in a 2-1 win over defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders to begin the year.
The most noticeable difference in the team’s style of play is the way the group pressed Seattle. In the first 45 minutes, Houston did not allow the Sounders to bring the ball up from the back line without pressure, which often resulted in turnovers and attacking chances for the home side.
This has been an issue for for Columbus before. As a team that likes to possess the ball, when an opponent makes that hard, it requires more effort to continue to play that style.
The Chicago Fire pressed the Black & Gold in the second half during last week’s 1-1 draw and were able to stymie Crew SC’s attack and create the turnover that led to the equalizer.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter’s men are working to not let that happen again against the Dynamo on the road.
“I think we did pretty well in the early parts of the game at picking Chicago apart,” he said. “As we stopped moving, it became more difficult. Movement’s the key to our game and we just have to keep moving, keep opening up for each other.”
Movement has been a word emphasized a lot this week for Crew SC, as there certainly was not enough of it in the final 45 minutes last Saturday. The players off the ball have to make themselves available, and in good spaces, in order to beat a press like the Fire’s or Houston’s.
“I think that second half against Chicago, we didn’t do enough to support players and that’s where we got stuck,” Trapp explained. “Got stuck on the sides, got stuck playing balls into guys with their back to a defender. And we don’t want to play those balls. We want to isolate guys in good pockets where they can run and play to the other side of the field. I don’t think we did a good job with that.
So for myself, it’s creating angles to move the ball out of tight situations and get to the guys that are further up the field and have space.”
As well as pressing high up the field with the front three and the central midfield, Houston also proved to be dangerous on the counter attack.
After going up 2-0 in the first half against the Sounders, in large part thanks to the pressure, the Dynamo sat back more in the second half, looking to spring an attack on the break and very nearly grabbed a third goal.
With the way Columbus plays, looking to get numbers forward, it often leaves the back three on an island that a good counter-attacking team can pounce. This is something the players will need to be aware of.
According to Berhalter, the possession style his team plays can help limit the counter, but it’s about not turning the ball over.
“By keeping the ball,” he said when asked how to defend the counter. “It’s where you lose the ball. It’s losing the ball in spots that prevent them from counter attacking. But they’re good at counter attacking and like I said, they high pressure and they counter attack and we like to keep the ball and we like to build out of the back. So it’s going to make an interesting storyline in the game to see what happens.”
While Houston is a new-look team and it’s still too early to figure out its tendencies entirely, the Black & Gold feel they have a good grip on what to do to be successful heading into Saturday’s contest.
On the other side of the coin, Crew SC are a tricky team to defend as well. With attacking options like Ola Kamara, Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay, as well as Federico Higuain pulling the strings, Columbus can be difficult to stop for any team, let alone a new group.
While the Dynamo have historically been a good defensive team, Houston was stretched a bit in the second half last week. If the Black & Gold can avoid the pressure and keep the ball early, they could ride through the early wave and take advantage of the unfamiliarity of this new-look club.
“I don’t know too much about Houston, but I know it’s a new team and I know with our style of soccer, you need a lot of communication, there’s a lot of defensive transition and things like that that teams have to play with,” Finlay said. “And that takes years sometimes to get guys on the same page. So we look at it as an opportunity I think this coming up weekend to go play a fresh, new team and obviously our goal is to get three points.”