The MLS Cup Playoffs are still going. With only four teams left and a massive 19-day break in action, it is easy to forget that the Western Conference title contest starts with leg one on Tuesday, Nov 21 at 6:30 PM Pacific down at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas. Fox Sports 1 is carrying the match between the Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo.
In their two meetings during the regular season, both teams won at home, which mirrors their MLS history. Neither side has a road win against the other, whether in regular season, playoffs or Open Cup.
Derek from Dynamo Theory answers six, yes, six, questions. The two sides met earlier in the season. Our previous Three Questions elements are linked too.
SaH: What midseason acquisition has been key to Houston's late season success?
DT: The Dynamo’s midseason acquisition of Tomas Martinez helped turn things around from their slump following Hurricane Harvey. Prior to Harvey, the Dynamo enjoyed some time at the top of the Western Conference table, but went winless in the 6 games after the storm which dropped them below the playoff line. Tomas Martinez was integrated slowly into the lineup, but has shown tremendous vision, a knack for scoring, and tackling. He’s quick to transition the ball from defense to offense which fits our style.
I can’t answer this question without bringing up the emergence of Vicente Sanchez. With some players missing during an international break, Sanchez was tasked with more minutes and the 37-year-old has impressed. He’s very similar to Martinez’s playing style, but he’s scrappy, more experienced, and has more vision. These players seeing an increased role has been key to the Dynamo getting to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
SaH: The Dynamo opened the season with a win that showed how good they were in wide spaces. Did that hold true over the season? Do they lean left or right?
DT: It’s still true, but how balanced it is one way or the other depends on the personnel on the pitch. Alberth Elis plays in the right wing spot and he will definitely spread the field that direction when he’s on the pitch. Romell Quioto does the same thing when he’s in at left wing. Mauro Manotas may get the start over Quioto and Manotas tends to drift centrally so the field will be spread in one direction, but not the other if that’s the case.
SaH: Who gets stuck with the task of slowing down Clint Dempsey?
DT: Hopefully it’s a team effort, but when Dempsey is in the final third with the ball, I’d expect Adolfo Machado to size up Dempsey. In the midfield, Juan David Cabezas will do his best to force passes away from Deuce’s direction.
SaH: Tell us more about Joe Willis, the keeper
DT: The Houston Dynamo have one of the best combination of two goalkeepers in MLS in Tyler Deric and Joe Willis. Deric is currently suspended so it will be up to Willis to be the man between the sticks. Willis is a fantastic shot stopper, like Deric, and he has great instincts with his positioning. Earlier this season, Willis usurped Deric’s job as the number 1 GK, but after a few poor outings by the team — not necessarily Willis — Deric was given the job again. Willis occasionally gets caught ball-watching, but proved against the Timbers that he can make big plays and keep the Dynamo in games when it matters most.
SaH: Last match two former Sounders were the fullbacks. Is Remick or Anibaba more important to success in the home leg?
DT: Remick is easily the better player, and to many Dynamo fans, he’s the heir apparent to DaMarcus Beasley at LB. Beasley was injured for the final leg against the Timbers so Remick filled in like he has all season. Remick is a smart player and his ability to get up the field draws immediate comparisons to Beasley. He has scored some great goals for the Dynamo and even tried his luck at the forward position in our annual Dynamo Charities Cup this year. However, with Beasley likely returning to his starting role, Jalil Anibaba is the more important player who will be filling in for A. J. DeLaGarza. Anibaba has filled in pretty well so far making some very good defensive plays, but his passing up the field has always been a concern and that will need to improve.
SaH: Speaking of the last match, did the half-month layoff help or hurt the Dynamo?
DT: Long periods of rest are always two sided. On one hand, players that are injured or that need a break get some time to recover. On the other, it’s easy to lose some of the momentum you had coming into the game. I don’t think anyone would complain about some extra rest or being in the position that they’re in now, but for some of our players, they didn’t get to rest. Our Honduran National Team players, Elis, Quioto, and Boniek Garcia, all had to travel to Honduras and Australia to compete in the final WCQ playoff games which is a lot of travel. I think overall, the break was helpful, but hopefully the travel wasn’t too taxing for some key contributors.
Predicted lineup: 4-3-3: Joe Willis; DaMarcus Beasley, Leonardo, Adolfo Machado, Jalil Anibaba; Juan David Cabezas, Tomas Martinez, Eric Alexander; Mauro Manotas, Cubo Torres, Alberth Elis
DT: Given Dynamo’s dominance at BBVA Compass Stadium this season, what will Seattle’s approach be for the first leg in Houston?
SaH: With a weakened lineup against Vancouver, Brian Schmetzer chose to play for the road nil-nil draw. That conservatism was necessary and worked. Now, he'll be a bit more open. There are more talented players in the 18. With Schmetzer generally liking to force other teams to react to him, rather than being reactive, he should put forth a posture that leads to 3-4 total goals scored rather than one that would take a miracle by either team to just get a single notch on the scoreboard. Getting a goal-scoring draw should be the focus.
DT: The main man to mark is obviously Clint Dempsey, but the Sounders have also seen Will Bruin’s role increase. How does the former Dynamo player fit into the Sounders system, and what can we expect to see from him that maybe we haven’t before?
SaH: Bruin succeeds at two things -- poaching and set-pieces. When a team forgets about Will as they focus on Clint and Nico, the former Houston forward will snag rebounds and sloppy plays to score goals. It isn't pretty, but it is glorious. On set pieces the team can target his play; whether through knock-on headers or as the primary target, Bruin is effective in the area. There are more talented players than Will Bruin on Seattle, but Bruin has the second-most goals because he fits what the team needs.
DT: Nicolas Lodeiro is the engine that drives the Sounders offense. What can the Dynamo do to limit his influence in the game?
SaH: Foul him a lot. Nico is the third most fouled player in MLS history. Teams do it because it works. Fouls at midfield prevent Seattle from transitioning quickly, while fouls in deeper ares are effective because Lodeiro doesn't have the best service. This is mitigated if Victor Rodriguez plays or if the foul is in Clint Dempsey's direct kick range. It's boring soccer, but without it Lodeiro pops into spaces all over the field and can steer the attack from dozens of yards away. His vision means he can be effective at chance creation, even if playing the 8.
DT: One of the biggest strengths the Dynamo has is in the speed of its forwards especially out wide. How will the Sounders adjust to the quick counters that are such an important part of Houston’s offense?
SaH: The main adjustment from the earlier games is competent defense out wide. When Kelvin Leerdam joined the team, the right back position went from smorgasbord to a single five-star entree. When Leerdam has a full season he could be in the discussion as a Defender of the Year. While Houston faced Joevin Jones at left back in the early matches, the changes there are up the field where the attacking mids are providing more pressure than they did early in the season. I still expect the Dynamo to have some success on counters against the Seattle left. It will be up to Chad Marshall and Gustav Svensson to provide support when Jones bursts forward, as he often does.
DT: How will the recent international break impact the Sounders? Did they have any players with national teams and will travel be an issue for those players?
SaH: Only three Sounders left for international play. Roman Torres turned down the opportunity and Cristian Roldan was not called up due to the playoffs "still going." All three that left are now back with the team without injury. Gustav Svensson helped Sweden beat Italy, playing 88 minutes in the two games, and will be going to the World Cup. Nicolas Lodeiro's Uruguay already qualified for the World Cup. He played 11 minutes against Austria and didn't make the field against Poland in two friendlies over in Europe. Nouhou's Cameroon had a meaningless World Cup Qualifier against Zambia. The young, enigmatic left back went the full 90.
The biggest benefit is that two players are nearing full health. Victor Rodriguez should be able to start after only being healthy enough to be a sub, while Jordan Morris looks likely to be a sub and may even be a surprise starter by leg two.
DT: The last time we spoke was prior to the Sounders’ win over the Dynamo in Seattle in June. I asked a question about the Sounders performance up to that point with the club in the 8th spot in the West. What helped turn things around with the Sounders finishing with the 2 seed?
SaH: As is true with all runs in MLS, a huge part of it was health. Seattle's right back situation was dire. Players who could be called 5th and 6th on the depth chart were starting there while 3rd-5th were starting at centerback. For a team built on defense, that's just horrible. Adding Leerdam solved the right back situation. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres getting healthy sorted out the CB issues. Suddenly the Sounders went from pedestrian attack and pedestrian defense to an elite defense. That offense was ineffective because Jordan Morris tried to play through injuries that limited his speed. As the team added talent, Morris was able to rest and Will Bruin bore more of the attacking load.
Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Kelvin Leerdam; Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan; Victor Rodriguez, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin