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Scouting Report: How to short-circuit the Houston Dynamo

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On Sunday (7 PM, JOEtv) the Sounders host the best team in the West.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Who You’ll Watch

The first place team in the Western Conference, Houston Dynamo (ed. note: what did I just read.), will be welcomed to CenturyLink Field by the Seattle Sounders this Sunday night. This is the second and final regular season meeting between the two teams. Houston defeated Seattle 2-1 in the season opener, behind goals from Erick Torres and Romell Quioto. Clint Dempsey scored the Sounders lone goal.

The Dynamo are coming off a 5-1 domination of Real Salt Lake, while the Sounders were embarrassed once again on the road, this time 3-0 by Columbus Crew SC. With their win Wednesday night, Houston has 23 points through 14 games played (1.64 ppg) and with Seattle’s loss, they are sitting pretty at 16 points through 14 games played (1.14 ppg).

The Sounders have just one loss at home this season and Houston is searching for their first road win of the year. Seattle is without many players due to either international duty (Jordan Morris and Dempsey) or injury (Will Bruin and Henry Wingo), and can expect a couple of others to be limited due to recovery (Aaron Kovar, Roman Torres). Houston will have players leaving for international duty, but not until after the game Sunday night.

Injury Report

Houston

George Malki (torn ACL 3/15, out for season) and Eric Alexander (right knee MCL sprain 5/6, out 8-12 weeks) are listed as out; Romell Quioto (right ankle sprain) is listed as questionable.

Seattle

Henry Wingo (right ankle sprain) and Will Bruin (left elbow dislocation) are confirmed out, while Roman Torres (left hamstring strain) is listed as questionable (even though he played 16 minutes in the most recent game).

Dynamo Form: W-L-L-D-W

Top Scorers: E. Torres, 10 goals

Top Assist Leader: Alex, 7 assists

What to Watch For

Even if Houston wasn’t in first, the fact that they haven’t turned into a pumpkin yet (though their shirts may try to convince you otherwise) would probably be one of the biggest storylines of the league this year. Wilbur Cabrera has made good on potential with a gameplan that puts his well-matched players in positions to succeed. Nonetheless, they’ve struggled as much as any team has this year on the road, and that shouldn’t be ignored.

Houston has eased up a bit on the ultra-high, cherry-picking wingers, but even now the frontline outside forwards are heavily slanted towards offensive action. When it works, like two days ago against RSL, it’s overwhelming. When it doesn’t, like against Atlanta a couple weeks ago, the Dynamo can be in for a long day.

First goal will be even more critical than usual; the Dynamo are not a team set up to chase the game, and getting out in front will force them to attack rather than absorb and get on the break. Unfortunately, Houston has proven to possess one of the deadliest counter-attacks, and it’s been a particular weakness for the Sounders. The onus will certainly be on Seattle, desperate for points, to make a play. Press too hard for a goal, though - or in the wrong way - and the punishment will come swiftly.

How will the Sounders deal with Alex? Cabrera isn’t just a Cubo-whisperer; he’s put Alex in positions that maximize his strengths, while constructing a team that both thrives off them and covers his weaknesses. Matt Doyle has a great look at what Alex is doing for Houston up over at MLSSoccer.com. The basic gist is that Alex is happy to use the entire field in all directions, often drifts wide to find open space, and has taken his decision-making to another level this year. Houston’s fortunes seem inextricably intertwined with his success.

This is going to give Seattle fits if they don’t figure out a good way to shore up the defense behind their aggressive fullbacks. Joevin Jones and Brad Evans will also be tasked with balancing the threat of the dynamic Alberth Elis and Quioto (assuming he’s healthy enough to start) with the need to provide offensive width. Press too much, and the midfield and CBs won’t be able to adequately cover.

A small adjustment in assignment for Cristian Roldan at half in the first matchup, and some better play from Osvaldo Alonso and the central defense, allowed them to quiet Alex, and with it much of the offensive threat that had seemed so omnipresent. By holding Roldan back and flat with Alonso, while bringing their line up the field a bit, Seattle was able to limit Alex’s ability to push the ball forward, and shuffle him towards the sideline. While the first half saw him spray balls all over, he was mostly confined to central-left zone in the second half.

If the Sounders can similarly limit him and keep him occupied in defense, it will help reduce the pressure and be tremendously helpful to a team almost certainly lacking in confidence right now. It won’t solve the problem on the other side of the field, though.

From whence do the goals come for Seattle? This question is becoming a bit rote, at this point, but it continues to be the most significant problem the team has (at least, when the defense isn’t leaking goals). Houston still isn’t a possession team, and in theory that should allow Seattle to develop quality chances. That’s been the line all year, however, and it hasn’t produced much to that end, at least relative to opportunity. Compounding this problem, few goal-threatening attackers exist on the roster, and virtually all of those are currently out for one reason or another.

While the defense may get shored up with returning starters, the offense has no such luck. Thankfully, Seyi Adekoya didn’t look entirely out of place Wednesday, and it seems likely he reprises his role at the top on Sunday. The rest of the team has the theoretical chops to score, but still isn’t showing signs of breaking out.

Teams have had success attacking down the right side against the Dynamo; Seattle does not have a right side of the attack. Houston plays much more conservatively on the road on defense; Seattle cannot break a bunker down. The Dynamo OFWDs don’t play defense; Seattle stays wide and lobs mediocre crosses into a hockey scrum in the box.

This has all the makings of another difficult match. If there’s hope to be found, it’s in the fact that Harry Shipp and Evans will be rested, and Kovar may finally be ready to bring some width and service to the right side. This team isn’t going to outrun Houston, but they could outsmart them.

Expected Lineups

Seattle: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Roman Torres, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans; Alonso, Roldan; Harry Shipp, Nicolas Lodeiro, Alvaro Fernandez; Adekoya

Houston: Tyler Deric; Dylan Remick, Adolfo Machado, Leonardo, A.J. DeLaGarza; Cabezas, Alex, Ricardo Clark; Mauro Manotas, Cubo Torres, Elis

How to Watch

Date/Time: Sunday, June 4 7:00 p.m.

Venue: CenturyLink Field

Television: JOEtv, Univision-Seattle

Radio: KIRO FM 97.3 (English) El Rey 1360 AM (Spanish)