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Sounders vs. Houston Tactics: Struggling to Beat the High Line

Houston's high line stumps Seattle in the first half, but the style of the game changes drastically at halftime.

Jane Gershovich/JaneG. Photography

Houston Holds a High Line

The primary feature of Houston's defense was their use of a high defensive backline. Dom Kinnear likely instructed his backline to step up to reduce the favored space of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey and limit their ability to combine between the lines. This meant Lamar Neagle's role took on more importance, as he is often tasked with of making runs in behind the backline and stretching the defense. In this game took on the role of a wide forward even more than usual, as he spent his time constantly looking to get behind the backline. Though he took up good positions, his touch and final product routinely let him down.

Seattle also tried to beat Houston's line by starting runs from deep. Alonso and Pineda made several of these runs, as well as Dempsey after dropping deeper into the midfield. The Sounders tried to occupy the two central defenders with strikers, and then use a third runner to exploit the space behind them. A good example of this is on Dempsey's run from deep:

Dempsey makes his run from deep, and Oba and Neagle are occupying the two Houston center backs. At almost the exact same time, they make subtle movements away from the Dynamo defenders when they notice Dempsey's run and that Pineda is about to try to play him over the top. Their hope is that David Horst and Jermaine Taylor will step up and stick tight to them, giving Dempsey space behind the backline.

The high line worked well, and Houston limited Seattle's attack in the first half. They fared a bit better offensively, and threatened by attacking down Seattle's defensive right side. Brad Davis and DaMarcus Beasley are excellent attacking players, and they created several dangerous moments down their side. They were supplemented by Giles Barnes, who found his best moments on that side, including the build-up that led to Houston's penalty. Houston's most dangerous weapon, however, was set pieces, as they found their best chances from Brad Davis's service.

Second Half Change of Pace

At halftime, the complexion of the game completely changed. Perhaps worried about fatigue, Kinnear dropped the pressure his midfield was putting on Seattle's deep-lying players and dropped the high line. However, this played directly into Seattle's hands as they were now able to play the frantic, high-paced game that they have preferred all season. The midfielders on both teams were given enormous amounts of space and were now free to easily transition into the attack and advance the ball for attackers to run at the opposition backline.

For the Sounders, Gonzalo Pineda and Marco Pappa found themselves with tremendous amounts of space, while Brad Davis and Ricardo Clark were the main beneficiaries for Houston. This style of game benefitted the Sounders. While they weren't as successful with this type of game as they have been in the past, it helped them gain the upper hand over Houston in the second half.

In the 60th minute, another major tactical change took place with the role of Martins. Throughout the first hour and a half he spent his time dropping deep, looking to create plays and link up with other attackers. Around the 60th minute, however, his role changed as he now sat higher on the backline and looked to use his speed to get in behind the center backs.

As expected, he was dangerous in this role, creating several scoring opportunities for himself.


While using a high line is always risky, it continues to be an effective way to stymie Seattle's attack. It remains a method of limiting the Dempsey-Obafemi combinations. This first half against Houston possessed many similarities to the first half against Chivas, as Seattle had chances to exploit the space behind the backline, but continually failed to do so. Dempsey and Martins have not shown the ability to adjust their play to counter the high line, and while Neagle's speed and movement are an asset against it, his final product was severely lacking here. The second half was slightly more encouraging, but the offensive execution is not quite at the same level it once was.

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