Match previews

Preview: Union at Houston Dynamo

Who: Philadelphia Union at Houston Dynamo
What: Regular season game
Where: BBVA Compass Stadium
When: Saturday, July 2 at 9 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Edvin Jurisevic; Linesmen: Mike Rottersman, Andrew Bigelow; Fourth Official: Ismail Elfath

Philadelphia Union looked overwhelmed by the New York Red Bulls press in the first half of Wednesday’s US Open Cup match, but they recovered and turned the tide for a 2-1 win. It was an important victory for a team that gave up yet another set piece goal in the first half and looked on the brink of losing the confidence that has propelled them to the top of the Eastern Conference. Philly’s comeback also featured this goal, one of the best the club has ever scored (calmness on the ball from Yaro and Rosenberry after Blake’s pass into pressure, Le Toux pulling Zubar out of the lane, that ball from Ilsinho… that finish from Pontius):

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Meanwhile, Houston Dynamo were busy locking up their second US Open Cup victory under interim head coach Wade Barrett. Led by a 20-year old Colombian striker, the Dynamo managed to hold for a 3-1 win only days after giving up a two-goal lead in a loss to Portland Timbers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 1.09.57 PMTwo teams coming off much-needed wins now look to find a vein of consistency when they meet at BBVA Stadium in Houston (or… Bridgeview, Illinois?)

Who is this Houston?

Under Owen Coyle, the Dynamo started off like an offensive powerhouse then overadjusted to shore up the defense and forgot where they left their scoring boots. Since Wade Barrett took over, the midfield is finally moving toward a balance that can support an attack without leaving the defense exposed. And, like most things in life, it’s all built around Collen Warner (wait, what?).

Barrett has implemented a selectively pressing 4-1-4-1 system that sits Warner between the central midfielders and central defenders. Additionally, the wing players tend to play narrow defensively, encouraging opposing teams to play the ball wide early. This allows Houston’s striker to move over and cut the field in half, with Warner and one other central midfielder closing space, the fullback stepping up, and the defensive line moving high.

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The most impressive aspect of Houston’s new-look shape is how well it squeezes playmakers out of the channels. In the first half of last week’s match against Portland, Warner tracked Diego Valeri when he snuck behind Ricardo Clark and Alex. When the ball came in to the Argentinian trequartista, Warner and Andrew Wenger could both collapse, forcing Valeri to play either straight back out or spin a perfect one-touch pass to a runner who, almost by default, was a lesser threat.

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In order for Warner to have the freedom to track Valeri — as he will undoubtedly try to track either Roland Alberg or Tranquillo Barnetta on Saturday — the rest of the Dynamo defense must close space whenever the ball is played into the center. The back line has to step up, the wings need to tuck in, and the striker has to cut out easy passing lanes back to the defense. When this happens, Houston is able to recover balls in midfield and play quick passes out of a counterpress (which the Union employ as well as anyone in the league). Ideally, the Dynamo can work the ball to the left where Oscar Boniek Garcia and DaMarcus Beasley can combine to hold possession and penetrate a defense.

If Houston’s defense does not close space when the ball is played centrally, they quickly become extremely beatable. Though Portland did not deserve the penalty that won them last week’s match, they dominated a second half that featured a far more passive Dynamo defensive setup. The masterstroke for Caleb Porter was an adjustment that Jim Curtin will undoubtedly highlight in the buildup to Saturday’s match.

After 55 minutes of watching Diego Valeri search for space in the center, Porter watched his playmaker drift more and more often to the right wing. In response, the Portland manager encouraged Darren Mattocks to stay central behind Fanendo Adi, and brought Lucas Melano further inside to make runs across Warner. The benefits were near-instantaneous. Now Warner was pulled off of Valeri to track Melano, and Mattocks was sitting in an ocean of space in front of the Houston back line that was wary of stepping up when Valeri kept pinging long passes at them from the right.

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Essentially, Portland took the soft spot in Houston’s defense — on the wing just inside the attacking half, or the half-boards for those who think in hockey terms — and put their best distributor there, with the wide player tucked inside to distract Warner. Houston never fully adjusted, in part because they don’t have the personnel to play a strong double-pivot. In fact, Barrett was stuck tossing Cristian Maidana, a player who probably couldn’t even draw “defense” in Pictionary, into the center of the park.

Perhaps the most foreboding part of the second half was that the Timbers overran the Dynamo with a combination of Mattocks and Jack McInerney in the sitting striker role. Neither player is even remotely suited for the position, but merely having a body in the hole was enough to keep the Houston back line deep and create space behind the midfield with Warner off chasing Argentinians.

Union response

Jim Curtin has to feel pretty good about how his team matches up with the Dynamo, though creativity will be required with CJ Sapong and Fabian Herbers questionable through injury and Sebastien Le Toux out with a concussion. Sapong likely shouldn’t go more than 30 minutes in the muggy Houston heat (it’ll still be very hot for the late kickoff; this is Texas). If Herbers is healthy enough to start, he should provide a good target moving between David Horst and Raul Rodriguez. Both center backs struggle to stay aware of mobile strikers, particularly when retreating.

With Herbers, the Union can operate a patient offense by playing through the excellent ball skills of Joshua Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry. While the Dynamo thrive on closing down vertical passes into midfield, they are less clear on how to respond to fullbacks that get involved in the buildup. Portland rarely posed this problem, but Rosenberry will (and Fabinho can, though he still loves an early cross).

Herbers occupying the center backs means Rosenberry can find Barnetta and Alberg in great positions provided one of them pulls Warner out of passing lanes. In fact, here is a scenario that, if it develops multiple times in the match, will foreshadow a good result for the Union. Yaro plays the ball to Rosenberry, Ilsinho tucks inside, with Barnetta making an angled run through the channel that pulls Warner out of the center. Then Alberg pops up to receive the ball centrally and looks to play a short drop to Ilsinho or a quick throughball to the circling Barnetta. It will look something like the video below, but with a midfielder receiving the pass from the fullback in that gigantic zone in front of the back four:

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If Herbers and Sapong can’t go, Philly will be left starting Leo Fernandes as a false nine. This is problematic if it results in him sitting in the space Philly needs to clear for midfield runners. A better alternative might see Ilsinho as a false nine with Restrepo on the wing to make angled runs toward the middle that keep the back four from stepping up. The potential problem with this lineup, however, is that Ilsinho may sit in that passing lane between the fullback and the center of the pitch. To be effective in a false nine role, he will need to drop all the way into midfield and force Warner to step up and follow him.

Chaco and Andy

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the play of Andrew Wenger and Cristian Maidana could have cost Jim Curtin his job last season. The Union coach looked to build off his team’s counterattacking success in 2014 by instituting a system that isolated Wenger and ran through the glorious creativity Maidana produces in the open field.

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Though it is too much to suggest that either player dogged it last season, they certainly did not perform their duties in a way that would allow the Union to enter the playoff picture. Wenger’s hard work defensively was never matched by the intelligent movement needed for him to create the space needed to be a true outlet. Meanwhile, Maidana was great with the ball but played defense with all the ferocity of a Raffi song.

Both players have recaptured their frustrating form for Houston. Maidana’s defensive shortcomings have seen him splitting time with Alex in the middle, while Wenger, like some sort of unstable element, only pops into existence long enough to wow before disintegrating once more.

Houston lineup questions

Although Will Bruin always seems to make an impact, it’s unclear who will get the start up top for the Dynamo. Mauro Manotas was extremely lively midweek, notching two against Sporting Kansas City. Additionally, Giles Barnes could return up top to try and stretch the Union’s defense or step in for Wenger on the right.

In midfield, it’s a question of whether Barrett believes Maidana’s creativity outweigh the potential problems he causes defensively. Alex combined well with the dangerous Boniek and Beasley on the left side of the formation against Portland, and he should keep his spot over the former Union playmaker.

Union setup with a healthy striker (graphic via the esteemable Seth Finck)

Union setup with a healthy striker (graphic via the estimable Seth Finck)

Union lineup without any healthy strikers (lineup graphic via the singular Seth Finck)

Union lineup without any healthy strikers (lineup graphic via the singular Seth Finck)

Prediction: Dynamo 1-3 Union

Aside from the injuries to Philly’s first, second, and third choice strikers (!), the team is relatively healthy. The most interesting questions come in the middle of the pitch, where Curtin could opt for a more defensive setup against a Houston side that has earned 12 of its 14 points at home (3-1-3 at BBVA compared to 0-5-2 on the road). Playing with two defensive midfielders makes less sense if the Union use a false nine, however, unless Curtin ups the complexity with Pontius and Ilsinho looking to curl into the center behind Fernandes to keep the center backs from stepping forward. This adjustment would require the Philly fullbacks to be very aggressive pushing forward since the wingers would be abandoning the wide areas.

Finally, let’s address the Union’s Achilles’ heel: Set piece defending. Since the Copa break, five of the twelve goals scored on the Union have come from set plays, including the Energy Drinks’ tally on Wednesday.

There is no quick fix here: Sometimes the Union are naive going through picks, other times they don’t have bodies around the top of the box, and sometimes Pirlo just punishes your mistakes. The Dynamo have only scored twice off of set pieces all season, but in David Horst, Raul Rodriguez, and Ricardo Clark they have the bodies and aggression to trouble Philly in the air. How the Union set up and attack the ball defensively should be watched very closely on Saturday.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I think 1-3 might be a tad optimistic with the 3 best strikers on the team facing injury issues.

    • Still have Pontius and Alberg, our leading scorer and the hottest player in MLS right now, healthy and good to go against Houston’s… lets call it porous defense. It’s within the realm of reason.

    • Concur. No striker, tired & in strength sapping humid heat. Also expect Gaddis to start. Give me a point today and I take it.

  2. Broseidon says:

    Should be easy to pick them apart. When the ball comes to Chaco force him to his left foot. Seeing as he was inept with it with us the past two years it would be nice to exploit that weakness as well as his lack of defense

  3. John Ling says:

    In addition to their press, it looked to me as though the Energy Drinks intentionally targeted Fabinho, especially early while they were dominating the match. They would alternate between playing over his head and getting into a foot race and overloading his side of the field to play quick passes.
    I think it’ll be something to watch going forward.

    • Definitely noticed that, and while it seems a good idea on the surface due to Fabi’s unpredictability, I really think that’s not necessarily the best option for our opponents. Fabinho is much, much more likely to be beaten on the counter attack when he goes off on one of his sun rocket adventures up the wing. This of course allows teams to get in behind him rather easily, pulls marquez to the outside and forces the rookies to pull central and defend the box (and scramble BC/creavalle back to help as well). When Fabi isn’t off on his runs he’s actually very capable of reading the game. The reason the red bulls had success is their press. Quick turnovers frequently catch players out of position before the defense has a chance to set itself, which creates the same effect as a sun rocket voyage.
      All that being said, if I’m a coach, that’s where I’m sending my guys. I want nothing to do with Rosenberry’s side of the field, and good luck going straight up the middle if Marquez and BC are there.

      • John Ling says:

        Yeah, I agree with all of that. If I’m a coach, I’m doing exactly what the Energy Drinks did with attacking Fabinho’s side – sometimes over the top and make him run, sometimes quick touch passes. (Fabinho chases the ball more than the kids I coach at soccer – and they chase a lot.) Another reason to attack Fabinho, really, is his penchant for picking up cards due to his all-or-nothing style of diving in on defense.
        Unfortunately, I don’t really trust Gaddis all that much more. He’s not a card liability. But he’s not good at reading the ball in the air, and when he does get under the ball he’s not as good in the air as Fabinho. He’s unlikely to get burned with speed, and he’s better at not chasing when the other team is playing the “short triangle” passes. But I actually like Fabi’s aggressive style – most of the time – and I’ve come to prefer him. Big, big difference from when I was onboard last year with helping to build the sun-rocket…

  4. I think Houston dynamo will be defeated in this game as they are poor in defence.I strongly predict 1-2 win for Unions.

  5. So Adam has suggested Fernandes as the false 9, or possibly Ilsinho as the false 9. I still wonder if playing Alberg as the false 9 makes more sense, as that gets him sniffing around the box to score the kind of leftover/poacher’s goals that he’s been scoring anyway. Then you put Ilsinho in the CAM slot — and don’t tell me he can’t play there after that magnificent through-ball he put in to Pontius against NYRB. Fernandes or Restrepo could go out on the wing where they belong.

    • I like the Fernandes up front idea from one standpoint in particular: dirty running. That’s what the kid did last year for the cosmos (and he had to since raul had basically become a statue that could shoot). Let him loose and see if he can’t find a little interchange with the players behind him to really press defenders and leave lanes for ilsinho, alberg, barnetta and pontius to run into.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Can he defend? That is the FIRST question to be answered, before considering offensive characteristics.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @scottso – It was Curtin that bumped Leo for the false nine role, actually. I’m more in the “why not Ilsinho?” camp, to be honest.

      I’m a bit lukewarm on the Alberg idea (though I agree with you that there is some sense to it) because I think Curtin has been reticent to change what works this year (with the results mostly supporting his thinking) and Alberg has found success in midfield. Personally, I also think Alberg is far better at finding space others leave than creating his own with early runs, so I prefer him in midfield for that reason.

  6. Buccistick says:

    Adam, you’ve outdone yourself with this preview. Incisive analysis? Check. Hilarious analogies? Check. Next-level tactical contingencies? Check. Spoiled readership? As spoiled as we are grateful — yes, indeed. Thank you, PSP!
    Having said all that … I detected a simple way to shave the word count down. In the last paragraph, just end the second sentence with “Pirlo.” You know, the verb 🙂

  7. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    John McCarthy has been sitting on Philadelphia’s bench as Andre Blake’s deputy for the past four Union matches on the trot – it is safe to assume the local La Salle product is the MLS club’s # 2 at this point in time?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Been wondering about that, hoping all is well with the new child at home. On physical athleticism I rate Jones slightly ahead.

  8. der Fussballzuschauer says:

    I rate Jones’ physical athleticism – i.e., the ability to dive about like Andre Blake – higher than McCarthy’s, as well. I do think McCarthy is pretty reliable in the air, at least from what I’ve seen of him for BSFC at USL level, but I haven’t seen enough of the Englishman to give him any kind of grade on high balls played into the box. So perhaps McCarthy has the edge over Jones in that important department … It’s been pretty obvious all season that the Philadelphia Union have no real plans for the veteran Jones. From what I understand, it was Jones (via his agent) who contacted the Union about a loan deal and not the other way around. Jones’ wife is an American and apparently their long-term plan is to settle in the United States. The way things have been going all season long, I just don’t see the Union bringing Jones back next year … In my mind, if Philadelphia had any interest in truly evaluating what they have in Jones, the Englishman would have been getting games in the USL these past few weeks.

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