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Houston Scouting Report: What's in the Box? Pain

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The Sounders try to get the offense rolling again against a team that's given up a lot of goals, and given up a lot of goals from close range.

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After being humbled by the LA Galaxy at home, Seattle was given a little respite with a game against the struggling San Jose Earthquakes. But it wasn't enough of a respite, as the team was shut out for the second consecutive match and lost again. Now the MLS schedulers have given us arguably the most promising matchup we could hope for, with a home game against the defensively challenged Houston Dynamo.

For years Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has been able to grind out regular seasons that are just good enough to get into the playoffs and then turn on the afterburners in the playoffs. Over the last three seasons they've finished the regular season in 2nd, 4th, and 5th place in the East. And in those seasons they reached the MLS Cup final twice (losing both times to the Galaxy) and the Conference Final once. That's created a mythology around Kinnear that his regular seasons just don't matter, but this season they're pushing it. With barely over a point per game, they're predicted to only have about a 5% chance to make the playoffs, and the fault lies mostly with the defense.

Key Players
Brad Davis One of the best crossers and set piece deliverers in the league, he's suffered from having fewer targets to cross to this season.
DaMarcus Beasley Returning American hero gives them both defensive solidity and attacking speed on the left.
Giles Barnes English youth international is an attacking wild card withdrawn behind Bruin.

A lot of the criticism of the Sounders' recent play has focused on their defense, particularly with Chad Marshall out injured. And there's no question the defense has been poor. But even if the defense had been perfect, Seattle still wouldn't have won 3 of the last 4 games, in which they were shut out. Yes, a poor defense can have knock-on effects up the field, but not enough to turn what was the best offense in the league through half the season into one that can't score at all. The responsibility for that is on the Seattle attackers, and much of the problem is an inability to create attacking width.

But this isn't a Seattle scouting report, it's a Houston scouting report. And Houston may be just what the doctor ordered for Seattle's offense. The Dynamo have allowed more goals than any team in the league, and an absurd percentage have come from in the 18 yard box, suggesting that the central defenders have been largely at fault.

Here's the worst defensive teams and the percentage of the goals they've allowed coming from inside the box:

Goals Allowed / G In Box / G % In Box
Houston 1.91 1.81 95%
Montreal 1.86 1.38 74%
Portland 1.73 1.59 92%
Philadelphia 1.64 1.45 89%
Chicago 1.62 1.48 91%
Chivas 1.62 1.38 85%
New England 1.59 1.18 74%

The teams with more than 90% of their goals coming from in the box are widely considered to have weak central defenses. Portland is there as the poster team for central defensive instability. And Chicago has not gotten good performances from ex-Sounders Patrick Ianni and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. But the king of the porous box is Houston, with 95% of their goals against coming from right in front of the keeper. That would suggest that the pair of David Horst and Jermaine Taylor has some significant weaknesses and that perhaps adding DeMarcus Beasley to provide help at fullback didn't address the team's biggest need.

At the other end, the Dynamo offense still runs through Brad Davis' left foot. He leads the team with 5 assists, and shutting him down in the run of play will be the priority for Seattle's right flank defense. Unfortunately, we don't know who that will be, given that DeAndre Yedlin was in England for a physical two days before kickoff. If he doesn't start, Brad Evans is a solid replacement, and a battle of the Brads could be a deciding factor in the game.

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Up front, the attack is spearheaded by the mercurial Will Bruin. His 8 goals is the same total Obafemi Martins has for Seattle, but I'm not convinced he's any good. Only 2 of those goals have come in the last 11 games, both of those were tap-ins, and he's only scored 1 goal all season on the road. Even without Marshall, Seattle's centerbacks should be able to keep him under control. The real scoring threat will likely be Giles Barnes, who can drift in from a withdrawn role to find space at the top of the box. Tracking him will be Osvaldo Alonso's primary responsibility.

But job one here is to score goals. The offense needs to get some confidence and rhythm back and this is a defense poised to allow just that. If Seattle doesn't score at least two, then either Tally Hall stood on his head or the Sounders are still in an attacking funk. And it will give a still ramshackle defense some breathing room to give up a goal while still earning the win the team needs to get momentum back in the Supporters Shield race.