HOUSTON – The uncharacteristically limp 3-1 defeat in Philadelphia last Sunday underscored a painful truth forged over the past couple of months: Houston had lost its way.
Forget about the team that ripped off five straight wins and an eight-game unbeaten streak through June and July. The then-Eastern Conference leader stumbled through August and September and watched the results suffer accordingly. First place felt miles away after that defeat to the Union punctuated a run of one victory in seven attempts.
In difficult times like these, the potential explanations – CONCACAF Champions League demands for the reserves, Geoff Cameron's protracted departure and the usual wear and tear of a long season – hold little weight. Only the solutions matter.
It came as little surprise to see the Dynamo return to basics against New England in a 2-0 victory on Saturday night. No more 4-3-3, no more trying to kick it around to kick it around, no more sitting down Adam Moffat to create room for others. The time for the fluffy stuff passed when the Dynamo failed to meet the grade at PPL Park, though it could have ended before that juncture, too.
Houston thrives when it sets out to meet simple purposes. Dictate the rhythm of the match. Fight the opposition for every last blade of grass. Keep it tight at the back. Get the ball down. Spray it wide. Swing crosses into the penalty area. Threaten often from set pieces. Torment the other team at both ends of the park.
When the Dynamo players lose sight of those principles, they falter. When they uphold them for 90 minutes, they combine to present an imposing hurdle for any team in the league.
This performance against the Revolution fell somewhere between the two poles. It took a while for the Dynamo to show improvement amid the downpours at BBVA Compass Stadium. New England created the better opportunities in the first half and managed well against an aerial assault that included too many short corners and not enough menace inside the penalty area.
As a response to the mess in Chester, it fell well short of the immediate burst expected. But the reply eventually arrived in a second half more in line with expectations.
Slowly but surely, the home side ratcheted up the pressure as the second half progressed. Brad Davis popped up on the end of a header. Calen Carr blazed over the bar. Will Bruin tangled with Dimitry Imbongo as the Dynamo prepared to defend a free kick. Brian Ching climbed off the bench to link all of the play together. Bruin forced Bobby Shuttleworth into a fine low save. Cam Weaver took the field and quickly forced Stephen McCarthy into a timely block.
All of that work finally yielded the opener after 77 minutes. Ching played Davis down the right side. Davis used his right foot to square across the goal area. Ricardo Clark capped a surging run through midfield to cleverly turn the service home off the far post.
One goal didn't stop the barrage and didn't conclude the scoring. Clark forced another save from a clever Ching back heel. Weaver hit the post. Davis forced Shuttleworth into yet another fine save. And then Boniek Garcia capped it all off by volleying home a cross from substitute Warren Creavalle to guarantee the points that already looked well in hand.
By the end, the performance reflected how the Dynamo usually succeed. There are more flourishes and tricks now with Boniek Garcia in the fold, but this group improved as the match progressed and unsettled their opponents to the point where the final result looked inevitable. The two late goals even bumped Houston's impressive haul in the final quarter of an hour to 17 on the season, a mark that might even earn some appreciation from their ideological brethren in San Jose.
Plenty of room for improvement still exists over the final three games. Tally Hall found himself called upon far too regularly in the first half. He always met the challenge as he has so often done this year, but he can't repel everything he sees on a regular basis. Boniek Garcia and Davis found themselves in need of better combination play from the forwards before Ching took the field. Bruin (two goals since July 1) and Carr both need to pose more of a threat inside the penalty area and score more regularly.
Those concerns do not dispel the notion that this Dynamo side can pose problems in the postseason. A berth isn't certain yet, but it should arrive soon with home matches against Montréal and Philadelphia and a visit to Colorado on tap to close the season. If the Dynamo can somehow climb into third or fourth spot, then the massive home advantage in Houston (23 matches unbeaten dating back to June 28, 2011) would come into play and perhaps pave the way for another charge toward MLS Cup.
For now, those medium-term aspirations fall well down the pecking order of priorities. It is about one game and one victory at time. By that modest measure and by the success of the second half on Saturday night, it appears Houston has rediscovered the tenets required to slide its season back on track.
Five Points – Week 28
1. A loss made more painful in the late stages: Chicago probably didn't merit any points from the 2-0 defeat at Sporting Kansas City on Friday. But the prospect of losing out in a top-of-the-table clash influenced so heavily by overwhelmed referee Chris Penso ultimately told in the late stages. Frank Klopas found himself sent off for his (justifiable) protests, while Gonzalo Segares lunged into a tackle in front of the Sporting bench to procure a rather avoidable and somewhat questionable second yellow card. Those two dismissals will keep both men out of Wednesday's critical home match against Philadelphia.
2. Thierry Henry does it again: It just doesn't get any better on a MLS field than the one-goal, three-assist performance Henry submitted in Saturday night's 4-1 win over Toronto FC.
3. The rare time when one road point at Buck Shaw Stadium feels like two points lost: Steven Lenhart continued San Jose's staggering record of securing results in second-half stoppage time to lift the Earthquakes to a 3-3 draw against surging FC Dallas. Lenhart's equalizer left FCD coach Schellas Hyndman to lament to the media about refereeing and wonder whether that goal could ultimately provide the difference between a playoff berth or a tee time later this month.
4. Merritt Paulson pops off: The Portland investor/operator couldn't contain his disgust at assistant referee Craig Lowry's decision to award a penalty on David Horst in the second half of the Timbers' 1-1 draw with D.C. United on Saturday. He expressed his anger on Twitter (even wisely saying he'd take a fine) after the apparently erroneous spot kick decision and took the field at the final whistle to vent his frustrations to the referee crew.
(Note: It was a particularly rough weekend for assistant referees. In addition to this mess at JELD-WEN Field, Columbus benefited from the inexplicable decision to deem Milovan Mirosevic onside in the 3-2 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday night. And those two instances only marked the particularly egregious errors on a weekend filled with other comparably minor transgressions. Throw in a couple of disasters from the men in the middle and the whole weekend led to an awful lot of reasonable carping by coaches and players.)
Paulson's actions likely warrant disciplinary action at some point this week. The Disciplinary Committee will gather evidence and perhaps offer a recommendation to MLS commissioner Don Garber on the matter. The final decision regarding any discipline for Paulson's behavior rests with Garber, according to a league official.
5. Los Angeles suffers a setback in Colorado...and it wasn't the 1-1 draw: Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza sustained a left knee injury in the opening half hour of the stalemate in Commerce City. DeLaGarza suffered a sprained left knee on the play, according to a statement issued by the Galaxy after the knock. The exact extent of the injury should emerge when DeLaGarza undergoes further testing in Los Angeles this week.
If DeLaGarza misses any significant length of time, then the Galaxy would have to retool its rearguard at the most critical point in the season. Galaxy boss Bruce Arena used his first-choice back four for the past seven games (Sean Franklin on the right, DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez in the middle and Toddy Dunivant on the left) and reaped the benefits (unbeaten in the previous six games with just three goals conceded). DeLaGarza's absence would force Arena to turn to Tommy Meyer (the choice on Sunday night), Andrew Boyens or David Júnior Lopes to fill the vacancy alongside Gonzalez. As one might suspect, those options aren't ideal for a team pursuing a second consecutive MLS Cup.Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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