If Houston follows in the footsteps of Seattle and Toronto FC and succumbs at Estadio Corona next Wednesday, it can point to its inability to grasp control of the affair during a positive first half spell against Santos Laguna on Tuesday as one of the primary reasons for its downfall.
For a large stretch of the opening stanza, the Dynamo asserted control over the proceedings and looked the more likely of the two sides to score. A bright start established the tempo and the tone of the affair. The home side enjoyed some spells in possession and threatened occasionally on the break and through set pieces (Bobby Boswell saw a header cleared off the line by teammate Warren Creavalle). Santos struggled to find its rhythm against a compact Dynamo side willing to exert high pressure to win the ball in decent spots or fire its wayward efforts anywhere near goal.
Instead of grasping the opportunity offered in the first half, the Dynamo allowed their relative edge to slip away without any tangible result. And, until Davis intervened in the late stages, it looked like the second half would offer some form of rebuke.
Santos enjoyed the better of the play after the interval and exposed Houston's defensive frailty time and again. The visitors deployed a fairly common tactic in Liga MX – an inside-out, horizontal run along the defensive line designed to attack space between a central defender and the nearest fullback, create space to operate and prompt an easy opportunity to square to a run through the middle – as their primary modus operandi. The approach would have yielded significant dividends if not for the ongoing imprecision in the final third.
Instead of combining neatly in the space provided to create opportunities, Santos faltered in its attempts to craft the opening goal and struggled to get its timing right. Several sequences ended with Hérculez Gómez or Oribe Peralta straying into offside positions. Others sputtered due to an inability to combine the three or four passes required to unlock a Dynamo defense that largely kept its shape and warded off any attempts to foray directly down the flanks. And the one tidy piece of play eventually concocted ended with Peralta shooting straight at Tally Hall from a promising position.
Davis – a halftime substitute for Creavalle – ultimately punished Santos for its inability to convert by scoring the winner shortly before full time. The canny midfielder opened the sequence in the middle third, received a good return ball from Corey Ashe and slotted home the winner to send the robust crowd home happy and stake his side to a meager advantage.
Unfortunately for the Dynamo, the second leg shapes up poorly for them. Santos' primary routes to goal – those neat runs along the line and the cross-field switches designed to exploit space on the opposite wing – will open more readily on a wider field. And the players benefiting from that sort of approach play will likely perform to a higher standard than the rather low bar set on Tuesday night.
It is by no means certain that Santos will overturn the deficit. Houston remains a resolute side with a strong spine, a decent rearguard and a threatening counterattack sparked by Boniek Garcia. But even this hardy group will struggle to protect that modest margin given the circumstances ahead in the difficult second leg to come.
As the Dynamo contemplates the task ahead in the return leg, two other MLS sides ponder the road tests they face over the next couple of days:
Tigres – Seattle (Wednesday, 10:00p.m., FOX Soccer): Most of the pre-match scuttlebutt surrounds the absence of Liga MX top scorer Emanuel Villa (calf). His omission removes one of Tigres' primary goal threats, but it will not preclude the Clausura leaders from finding other avenues to explore. Lucas Lobos provides much of the inspiration through the middle (if he can sidestep Osvaldo Alonso, of course), but tricky wingers Damián Álvarez and Danilinho also will pose threats against Sounders FC's rather unimposing fullbacks. Unless Seattle somehow obtains more of the ball than expected at Estadio Universitario, the home side will likely employ its share of the ball wisely, produce a couple of goals and salt away this tie before the second leg at CenturyLink Field.
Herediano – Los Angeles (Thursday, 8:00p.m. FOX Soccer): Bruce Arena's side travels to Costa Rica as significant favorite to clinch a berth in the semifinals. That billing comes with good reason given the Galaxy's romp over Chicago on Sunday and Herediano's relatively indifferent league form (mired in mid-table). If the MLS Cup holders can escape Central America on level terms or better, then they should find a way to progress in the return leg at the Home Depot Center.
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