What You’ll Watch
The Seattle Sounders are in the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year and for the fourth time in their history. This time around, they take on the Houston Dynamo. The two teams split their 2017 MLS regular season series, with the home team winning both games.
The Dynamo were really good at home this season — so good that they went 12-1-4 at BBVA Compass Stadium, scoring 43 goals (2.25 gpg). The Sounders went 3-8-6 on the road this season, but haven’t won on the road since a 4-0 drubbing of Minnesota United FC on August 5th.
The Dynamo have made it to the “final four” for the seventh time in eight playoff appearances. In the last 12 years, Houston has 16 postseason victories, which is second best over that period. In those 12 years, they have played 31 postseason games — more than anyone else during that time.
This will be the second time these two teams will meet in the playoffs. The very first time was way back in 2009, the Sounders first year in MLS. Sadly, Houston won that two-legged series by an aggregate score of 1-0.
Form: D-W-W-D-W, six goals scored and one conceded
Top Scorer: Erick Torres, 14 goals (club record)
Top Assist Leader: Alex, 11 assists
Form: L-W-W-D-W, nine goals scored and two conceded
Top Scorer: Clint Dempsey, 12 goals
Top Assist Leader: Nicolas Lodeiro, 12 assists
Absences: Injury, international duty, suspension
The league injury report hasn’t been updated since November 1, but here’s where things stood at the beginning of the month. Suspensions and cautions should be up-to-date.
George Malki (torn ACL), Memo Rodriguez (right knee sprain) and A.J. DeLaGarza (torn left ACL) were all listed as out as of November 1. Goalkeeper Tyler Deric is suspended due to off-field conduct. If Philippe Senderos, Ricardo Clark, Adolfo Machado, Romell Quioto or Alberth Elis receive a yellow card in this game, they will miss the second leg in Seattle next week.
Brad Evans (lower back) and Jordan Morris (right hamstring strain) were listed as out as of November 1. Osvaldo Alonso (right quad strain), Victor Rodriguez (right lateral quad strain) and Chad Marshall (right hip pain) were all listed as questionable. Cristian Roldan, Nicolas Lodeiro and Roman Torres are one yellow card away from missing the second leg.
Center Referee: Chris Penso
AR1: Jeff Muschik
AR2: CJ Morgante
4TH: Armando Villarreal
VAR: Kevin Stott
What to Watch
This Houston side has a lot of functional similarities to how the Vancouver Whitecaps played this year, with the glaring difference that they’re actually built and set up to play it successfully. Where Vancouver often succeeded in spite of its coaching, Houston succeeds in part because Wilmer Cabrera maximizes and balances his player pool’s abilities. Houston has many flaws and holes, but they do a good job of recognizing and balancing against them as best they can. Cabrera’s structural and tactical fluidity obscures that he generally has a specific role for each player and sets his lineups based on what actions he wants on the field.
In function there’s nothing fancy going on defensively; in fact, it’s pretty conservative. Without the ball, which is where they find themselves most of the time, they don’t foul a lot, which should leave the game free-flowing. The Dynamo play almost a 4-5-1 in defense and shift to a 4-2-3-1 in offense. Senderos and Machado are solid, if unspectacular, in the middle. They stay deep and rely on CDMs Juan David Cabezas and Eric Alexander to cover. Cabezas stays deep, while Alexander plays as more of a holding mid. The high press of early season is largely gone, replaced by a more practical approach.
Houston’s transition phase largely consists of a big kick downfield, followed by a strong push to find a good shot. They still eschew possession in favor of drawing teams deep and allowing their speedsters opportunities to run at and spin defenders. Attacking movement is balanced, if nominally wing-focused, coming up the channels and cutting in. There isn’t nearly the interchange in roles that Seattle sees, instead utilizing more a shift from side to side in overloads to create space.
The attack will generally include some combination of Mario Manotas, Alberth Elis, Romel Quioto, Alex, Cubo Torres, Vicente Sanchez and Tomas Martinez. The addition of Martinez hasn’t really moved them away from counter-attacking, but it has added some central dynamism that was missing with Alex running the point in a 4-3-3, and shifted them to the more pragmatic 4-2-3-1. Sanchez is virtually a lock to come on as a sub if he doesn’t start — at 37 he may no longer have the legs for 90 minutes, but his vision is still very good.
The formula for success for Seattle this round should be similar to that of the first against Vancouver. Houston undoubtedly will be far more intent on scoring, at least at home, than the Whitecaps were, and this should give Seattle more space to work with. Nonetheless, Seattle has a solid talent advantage and matches up well at the positions Houston relies most heavily on for success.
Cede some possession: Even at home, where the Dynamo have been incredibly successful this year, they give the majority of the ball to the opposition. Their primary method of denial is a crowded box and limiting available space to work in.
To be successful in Houston an opponent has to find a way to force the game to be played vertically, in addition to horizontally. In their last match with Portland, the Timbers — even with their injury-limited lineup — were able to create a number of dangerous chances because they kept Houston stretched up and down the field via just enough possession to make it matter.
Seattle, with its much more complete offense, should also find success if they’re able to find a balance of vertical movement with their very good lateral play.
Tempo, tempo, tempo: Houston’s defense isn’t going to wow anyone on first glance (and probably not on second glance, either), but they’re solid-to-good where it counts. The Sounders will need to keep the ball moving and and keep making coordinated runs to open up that sweet, sweet space. This is probably a good match to break the crosses out, as well as to utilize the lost art of the full-field switch.
This tempo and movement should be used to force width in Houston’s defense. Machado and Senderos are not particularly interested in moving up-field; breaking the bunker is going to require moving players (most likely Dylan Remick and Jalil Anibaba) horizontally out of the box.
How to Watch
Date/Time: November 21, 6:30 PM PT
Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium
Television: FS1, FOX Deportes
Radio: KIRO 97.3 FM (English), El Rey 1360 AM (Spanish)