There were some changes in the lineup, which isn't in and of itself surprising, but as a whole the changes may have caught some off guard. Most notably, health concerns kept James Riley out of the lineup, and Zach Scott came in at right back. Jhon Kennedey Hurtado was given the night off and Patrick Ianni filled in next to Jeff Parke, returning to the CB pairing from the second half of '10. Alvaro Fernandez was left on the bench, and Erik Friberg given the nod on the right. Brad Evans came in is a box-to-box CM, paired up again with Osvaldo Alonso after a long absence from league play. The rest of the lineup was unchanged.
The most notable impact from the first few minutes was that Friberg looked superb at right mid/wing. He and left winger Steve Zakuani were both excellent as wide playmakers, in different ways. Zakuani did damage with the dribble, and Friberg with the pass and cross. Zakuani, as usual pushed very high and essentially a forward, had a great match, despite missing some chances, and again demonstrated his ability to unlock defenses by running at and challenging defenders, a skill certainly unmatched on the team and likely among the top league-wide.
Evans continues to be drastically under-appreciated as a box-to-box central midfielder - in all reality the only true one on the Sounders roster. His ability to compliment the tenacity of Alonso by providing a link to the attack, whilst not allowing himself to be exposed defensively, is the reason he is and will continue to be Sigi's first choice as starting CM when fit. Particularly in the first half, he provided some good balls and found himself in on a couple chances.
The second half saw Nate Jaqua return to League action as a 61' substitute for O'Brian White at target forward, and his pedigree was immediately apparent. His ability to throw his weight around and win flick-ons has been sorely missed, as well as his hold-up playmaking ability. But it was the introduction of Mauro Rosales in the 71' that had a profound impact on the match. Evans was withdrawn and Friberg took over in the middle, and Rosales wrought havoc on the right wing, bringing frenetic energy and almost constant quality service into the box.
Notably, Fernandez was an unused substitute, and may find re-introduction into the starting lineup an uphill task, given the flash which Friberg and Rosales both showed in their time on the right. It may be that once Rosales is deemed fit to go 90' the right wing spot is his to lose.
Very little came from the Sounders fullbacks, although Gonzo did offer some good passes and earned what should have been a penalty kick. The drop-off from Riley to Scott is stunning, as Friberg, and then Rosales, were left to do any creative work alone on the right. I suppose the pragmatist in me should recognize that in the salary-capped MLS, it may be unreasonable to expect much depth of quality at the fullback position, but I also know what is possible with good fullbacks who can contribute positively, and there was clear missing link on the Sounders right side.
The controversy started early, with a yellow card to Houston's Hunter Freeman in the 2', which some felt could have been red. Friberg took advantage of Freeman's hesitation on a bouncing ball and appeared to be a step away from a one-on-one with Houston keeper Tally Hall in the box, but Freeman grabbed his arm and pulled him down.
The arguments about "last man" hold no weight, as the term does not appear in the FIFA law book. The issue concerns "denial of obvious goal scoring opportunity" as it is commonly worded, for which a red card is called for any foul play, whether deliberate or not, in such a situation. As to whether or not Friberg's opportunity was an obvious goal-scoring opportunity may be largely a matter of interpretation, unfortunately. Nonetheless, referee Ramon Hernandez was put in a difficult position given the time of the infraction, and chose discretion, for which it is hard to criticize him.
As play continued to develop, the Sounders superiority became apparent. Although they didn't dominate possession throughout that match as much as I initially perceived, Houston rarely seriously challenged and hardly saw the ball in their attacking third. A critical mis-step by Parke nearly gifted a chance in the 11', but Keller made a routine save.
In the 13' OBW sent Evans in alone on a backheel flick, but Hall beat him to the ball and knocked it away. It fell to Zakuani, who, with a nearly empty net (a Houston defender had hustled back) sent it over the bar, and the first glorious chance went wasted, which would become a theme.
The Sounders created numerous chances throughout the first half, but weren't always able to get off a quality shot. OBW used his speed to win a ball early but was clearly hesitant to shoot with his left and took too many dribbles before offering a weak, bad angle attempt. Later, he fumbled a feed from Zakuani with a poor first touch - something we have seen before. On the whole, my assessment of OBW is that he plays as someone who lacks confidence. His athleticism and physical attributes are apparent to all, but his abilities as a player seem somehow lacking, at least for now.
Having said that, he very nearly scored, getting on the end of a Friberg cross and heading it on target. Good positioning by Hall kept it out.
The Sounders had a few goal-mouth scrambles and near misses, which made the Houston goal all the more painful. A superbly taken free kick rang the crossbar and the rebound eventually knocked in, although nearly blocked by a prone and unaware Parke. The 42' minute goal was stunning after a half of play which could've easily seen the Sounders build a 2 or 3-goal lead. One more final, unfulfilled, goal-mouth scramble just before the half-time whistle sealed the deal for the Sounders frustration.
The second half showed more of the same, although the chances didn't come as fast and furious, and Houston managed to see a bit more of the ball. The Sounders attack seemed to begin to lag a bit before the introduction of Jaqua, and then Rosales, and it was shortly after this that the next great talking point of the match took place.
Zakuani sprung Gonzo into the box, and Houston's Andre Hainault came through with what can only be described as a very sloppy, and potentially very dangerous, slide tackle which was nowhere near the ball. We often see such tackles result in cautions, or worse, and in the penalty area they really should be penalties at the least. The fact that Hernandez went to his pocket for a card to Gonzo, ostensibly for simulation, rater than point to the spot, was stunning. While there is some argument to be made for how much contact was actually made, what can't be argued is that reckless tackles such as this cannot be rewarded, which is the net effect of giving a yellow to Gonzo.
The Sounders won a series of corners and eventually converted one, Zakuani tapping it in at the far post after a weak offering from Friberg took a deflection. The fact that it was somewhat of a junky goal was of no concern to anyone in Qwest Field who finally got to celebrate a long-awaited goal.
Immediately after the equalizer, the promise of a winning goal filled the air, but the Sounders couldn't make it happen. In the end the result is certainly two points dropped by the Sounders, and the Dynamo should certainly rush out of town feeling as though they committed highway robbery for their point.
The Sounders took 26 shots, putting 8 on goal, while Keller hod only the lone 11' save. Montero had the majority of both shots taken (7) and on goal (3) and continues to be a dangerous player who takes his chances and has come achingly close to scoring too often this year. What is beginning to stand out is his ability to recognize opportunities to strike from distance, and it seems only a matter of time before the damn bursts and the goals start coming.
Goals win games:
In the end we sing a familiar refrain, and until this team demonstrates an ability to consistently finish their chances we will sing this tune time and time again. This is nothing new in the MLS history of this club, and we can all remember the home-field goal drought which plagued them from the middle of '09 though the middle of '10.
There is some growing controversy over the perception of O'Brian White, a player who is seen as both tragic potential hero and pariah. From where I see it, if this team were scoring goals, much of the criticism wouldn't exist; and OBW himself has had many of those chances.
To me, it is not a question of whether or not OBW is capable, but that I see Jaqua as a better option at target forward, for this team, at this time. Only lack of fitness is keeping him out of the starting lineup, and whether or not his introduction results in more goals or not remains to be seen.
But discussion of who the target man is largely misses the point. Last year 20 goals came from Montero and Zakuani, and whoever is eventually going to man the right will be expected to contribute as well. Most everyone agrees that 1 point through 3 matches isn't good enough, but I don't see any great, hidden answers emerging any time soon. Put the ball in the net and this will turn things around... it is that simple...