Since establishing themselves in Houston for the 2006 season, no MLS team can boast the success of the Houston Dyanmo.
During their first two years in Houston, the Dynamo won two MLS Cups. If you count the title coach Dominic Kinnear and the bulk of those players won while playing the 2005 season as the San Jose Earthquakes (it's a long story), the team has actually won three titles. Although they have not been able to repeat that success, they have made the playoffs all four years and have twice made the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals (2007-08).
In many ways, the Dynamo are a model MLS franchise.
"I can’t speak to too much of the front office part, but the onfield demands of the coaches are very similar and reflects back onto the players," said Patrick Ianni, who spent three years with the Dynamo before being traded to the Sounders before the start of last season. "The coaching staff is very dedicated and you don’t see that everywhere. I think sometimes we take that for granted in Seattle, the work that the coaches put in and also the work the players put in and the commitment to the club. They’ve shown that commitment to the guys that are still here and the players reciprocate that. I think it was the same thing in Houston, with the coaches and players being committed to the Dynamo organization, the way you win championships and conduct yourself. In that respect, the teams are similar."
Like most models, they eventually become obsolete. The Sounders would appear to be as good a candidate as any to replace them.
The two teams have already built a significant on-field rivalry, with Sunday's match marking the sixth time the two teams have met across all competitions since last year. The Sounders won at home and tied on the road during the regular season, beat the Dynamo in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup and then ultimately fell in extra time during the second leg of their first-round playoff matchup. None of the matches have been decided by more than one goal and two of them required extra time (the USOC semi also required it). The Sounders have already played more competitive minutes against the Dynamo (520) than any other MLS team, with the Los Angeles Galaxy being the only other team they've played five times.
"It definitely was a rivalry last year," said Nate Jaqua, who scored the equalizing goal in the 89th minute of the USOC semifinal and played two seasons for the Dynamo. "I think there’s some stuff that’s carried over. We definitely got the better of them during the regular season, but they got the better of us when it really mattered. We definitely want to get back at them."
Unfortunately, at least for the sake of the rivalry, the Dynamo appear to be headed in the complete opposite direction as the Sounders.
While the Sounders have become the hottest team in MLS (10 points in their last four matches), the Dynamo's playoff hopes are on life support. After claiming 16 points in their first 10 matches, the Dynamo have not won any of their past eight and have gathered just four points in that span. Only five teams have fewer points (20) than Houston and only four have a worse points per match (1.11).
"Houston is going to be a very dangerous team because they’ve been at the top of the league, they have a lot of proud players," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "They aren’t going to be comfortable in the position they are in and they are going to fight and bite and they are going to scratch, they are going to do everything they can because they are a proud team."
They Dynamo's struggles started, oddly enough, just after forward Brian Ching returned from injury. The Dynamo had managed to essentially tread water during his eight-match absence, claiming nine points in that span. Ching scored a go-ahead goal as a second-half substitute in his first game back, but the Dynamo eventually lost that match on a stoppage time goal and have failed to win since then.
In the meantime, the Dynamo have cut their first-ever and only Designated Player, Luis Angel Landin (two goals in 16 career matches); benched talented, but ineffective Dominic Oduro (two goals this year in more than 1,000 minutes); and lost starting goalkeeper Pat Onstad to injury. They've also had to deal with an injury to Geoff Cameron, who only now is returning from an ACL injury. This all came on the heels of losing Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark to international transfers.
Hardly helping matters has been playing a man down for two straight games, with Bobby Boswell getting two yellows during the 3-0 loss to Columbus and Lovell Palmer drawing (a wholly undeserved) red card in last week's tie against the Red Bulls. In both ejection instances, it's hard to imagine the matches changing much. The Dynamo were being thoroughly outplayed when Boswell got his second yellow, even though they were only down 1-0 at the time.
Against the Red Bulls, the Dynamo should probably consider themselves lucky to come away with a point. The score was tied 1-1 when Palmer was ejected, but Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo were absolutely unzipping the Dynamo backline. The fact that the score wasn't 4-1 at that time was due almost entirely to Henry working out the rust. Henry had already missed three wide-open opportunities. That the Dynamo scored the equalizer in the 91st minute was much more an indictment of the Red Bulls defense than a product of anything Houston did.
There were some signs of life against New York, though. Bad defense or not, Brian Mullan did a great job to find space on the equalizer against a group of players that should have been in full protect mode. The two outside midfielders, Brad Davis and Danny Cruz, were the most effective Dynamo players throughout the match and did an admirable job of creating opportunities even after they went down a man. It's also worth noting that -- bad call or not -- the Dynamo had a chance to take the lead, but Davis missed the second of his two penalty kick opportunities. Palmer, too, looked strong before being ejected (luckily the Sounders won't have to worry about him).
One persistent problem is that Ching -- the player on whom the team was expecting to be its main offensive force --has been too easy to neutralize this season. He has scored three goals -- all but one of them in losses -- but he's only managed 10 shots, or about 1.1 per 90 minutes. If that shot trend holds it would be his worst per-90 output of his career by a significant margin. The only year in which he hasn't averaged at least 2.3 SP90 was his rookie season when he played just 228 minutes and still registered about 1.5 SP90. He's only managed to get four shots on target this year.
Against the Red Bulls, for instance, Ching was almost entirely invisible. The only times he even seemed to be any factor was on set pieces. That kind of specialty play is acceptable when he's being brought on as a late offensive substitute for the U.S. National Team, but it's of little use to a team that has been shut out five times this season.
Of even more concern than the offense is the porous defense. Only one team has surrendered more goals (27) and only three have a worse goals against average (1.50).
The defense has allowed a respectable 10.72 shots per match and 4.00 shots on goal per match (eighth and fifth best, respectively), but combined with their anemic offensive outputs of 9.50 and 3.39 their differentials in both areas are 11th and 12th, respectively.
Compounding those shot deficits is the fact that Onstad was starting to show his age (42) before getting hurt, ranking 14th among qualified keepers in goals against average (1.47) and saving just 62 percent of the shots he faces (only the Union's Chris Seitz has been worse among qualified keepers). This from a player who entered the season as one of MLS's top all-time keepers (his career 1.05 GAA is the best in MLS history).
In Onstad's place the last two matches has been Tally Hall, who has allowed five goals on 12 shots after posting a shutout in his first start of the season on May 22. Combined, the keepers have allowed goals on nearly 38 percent of the shots they've faced, a figure that is worse than all but one team (the Union keepers have allowed goals on about 40 percent of the shots they've faced).
All of this would seem to be good news for the Sounders. After struggling to get shots on goal for much of the season, the Sounders have fired 21 shots on goal (off 39 shots) during their four-match MLS unbeaten streak. They are still only scoring on about 26 percent of their shots on goal (10th best), but the fact that so many more of their shots are on frame is a definite sign of progress.
Prior to their four-match unbeaten streak, the Sounders were putting just 34 percent of their shots on frame. No team currently puts less than 36 percent of their shots on goal (Houston's 35.7 shots-on-goal percentage is the worst in the league).
The Sounders are also doing a better job of limiting their opponents' opportunities. Only 32 percent of the shots they've faced have been on target, leading to just two goals. Although the 12.5 shots per game they've surrendered during that span is certainly higher than would be desirable, it is worth noting that the bulk of those shots came against Dallas and Colorado (32 shots) both of whom were playing from behind for the bulk of the match.
It's also been no small help that Sounders keeper Kasey Keller has been as sharp as he's ever been in Rave Green. And it's not just the .875 save percentage that has been impressive, it's been the quality of many of those saves. On the rare occasion that opponents have gotten decent looks, Keller has been as reliable as ever.
"Starting from up top, the effort has been there," said Ianni, whose installation as the second centerback coincided with the current run. "Talk about whoever you want to talk about, Fredy Montero, Roger (Levesque), Blaise (Nkufo), Steve Zakuani, Sanna (Nyassi), whoever is on the field has worked very hard to close people down and that's made our jobs a lot easier. Because of that, it's made our jobs a lot easier."