The Houston Dynamo are kicking off the summer season with a midweek road trip to Philadelphia against a surging Union. For head coach Wilmer Cabrera, it’s time for him to transition the team from a dominant home side to one capable of getting results on the road. Indeed, the Achilles Heel for Houston for most of their existence has been road games. If there is a chance for the Dynamo to remain in the playoff picture, they’ll need to get points, especially against poor teams such as the Union.
What was a relatively easy fixture at the beginning of the season is now looking like a very tough one. August 27, 2016 was (previously) the last time Philly won a match, a 2 – 0 home win against Sporting KC. After that they went months on end without a win, leaving the fan base massively upset, putting head coach Jim Curtin in the hottest of seats in Major League Soccer. This season didn’t start off well either, with the Union going winless in their first 8 games. That’s a total of 15 games without a win.
Of course just as the Dynamo get ready to face them, the Union start to turn things around. Their first win came against the Red Bulls with a 3 – 0 thumping at home, followed up with an absolute destruction of DC United on the road last weekend, 4 – 0. That means Doop-Town is on a 4 game unbeaten streak. The man leading the charge is CJ Sapong. The big center forward has 7 goals so far this season, just one behind Erick Torres and Chicago Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic for the Golden Boot lead. If Houston is to have any hope in this match, they’ll have to match Sapong’s physicality and not let him wander around the box unmarked. Leonardo and Panamanian International Adolfo Machado need to keep their recent form high.
Fortunately for the pair, Sapong is the Union’s only true goal scoring threat. Their big offseason signing, English striker Jay Simpson, has (to date) been a total bust, contributing little to the proceedings (just watch this be the game he breaks out. Only in MLS…). That doesn’t mean they are entirely toothless, however. Their midfield has shown some bite, especially with Haris Medunjannin, the Bosnian International, pulling the strings. With Haris being more than capable of finding players in open positions, the Union midfield has started to chip in with goals of their own. This means that the Dynamo midfield trio will need to be particularly mindful of finding runners and closing off the passing lanes to them.
Much like the previous game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, Houston’s midfield will be heavily outnumbered. Hopefully Cabrera’s strategy (or the player’s) won’t be to rely on fouls in the middle third to negate that. A 5 man midfield is very common, especially amongst their upcoming opponents, and yellow card (or worse) attrition isn’t something the team can handle over the coming months. Besides Haris, another key midfielder to keep a close eye on will be Chris Pontius. Ever since signing with the Union, he has stayed relatively healthy and been a boon to their offense. Though he hasn’t been good in front of net, he does have 4 assists already this season, giving his Bosnian teammate space to operate in while he distracts defenders.
How can Cabrera and the Dynamo counter this? A return to the 4-4-2 isn’t a terrible idea as it’ll provide extra defense in the middle. With Eric Alexander out, it does mean their depth in the middle will be a bit thin (assuming Oscar Garcia takes the 4th spot). In the good news department, however, is that Jose “Memo” Rodriguez has gotten minutes lately as a late game substitute. His easing into the role is excellent news for a team that is in desperate need of help from homegrown players, especially in the middle. Hopefully he’ll continue to get minutes to further his development. Back to the 4-4-2. The narrow diamond would allow the midfield to neutralize Haris and Pontius and force the Union to go at DaMarcus Beasley and AJ Delagarza instead, both of whom have been pretty good of late.
The tricky part will be in making sure that Garcia and Ricardo Clark don’t get too adventurous going forward. In that particular system, one or both need to stay deeper, using Alex as the spigot. One the Brazilian has the ball, let him spray it forward toward one of the strikers and follow through to be the third attacker. Though the Union defense has three straight shutouts (including two on the road), they’ve been very leaky and can be exploited. They’ve been turned around with some clever passing in the past as well as individual players being caught too high.
If there is a player to pounce on in the defense it is legendary former US International Oguchi Onyewu. Signed as a backup during the offseason, he has instead been a constant starter due to injuries. Despite not having played much in years, he’s been a solid rock in the back, in both the good and bad meanings. For a Dynamo offense that is built around speed, in all of it’s aspects, this could be a nightmare for Onyewu and the Union. Getting him turned around and separated from his center back partner will expose huge gaps to be exploited. It won’t be easy as Onyewu is too smart and experienced to easily be isolated as such. Still, it’s a tactic and battle worth taking. Trying to play him physically will only result in lots of bruises and a long icebath after the game.
How will this game play out? The Union have a lot of momentum built up and it’ll be tough for Houston to halt it. If Cabrera wants his (still) 1st place in the Western Conference to mean anything, he has to pounce on the struggling (ish) teams in the league, home or away. It’s difficult to see a win, but a 2 – 2 draw is feasible.