By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
The winds of change are blowing down in Houston. Dominic Kinnear, the only manager the Houston organization had ever known, has gone back to his old stopping grounds in San Jose. In his place steps manager Owen Coyle and new Vice President/General Manager, Matt Jordan. Coyle formerly managed both the Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic of the English Championship and moves from England to the land of Texas and will team with Jordan to start a new era for the Dynamo.
The hiring of Jordan is intriguing on a few different levels. The organization previously didn't have a General Manager as the duties seemed to be a cumulative set of responsibilities among Kinnear and other staff members. Specifically mentioned at the time of Jordan being hired is the purpose for him to usher in an era of data analytics for the club.
This got an eyebrow raise from some, but his credentials are legitimate. Jordan, a former MLS Goalkeeper and all-star for the Dallas Burn, graduated from Clemson with a degree in Marketing and was hired away from his Technical Director role with the Montreal Impact, where he had also previously worked as the club's Director of Soccer Operations. This progression shows an increase in responsibility and performance within the organization, but nothing that really conveys the thought that he was someone that pushed the use of data or “outside of the box thinking”.
Moving forward, the role in hiring and bringing in outside services and consultations to really build an analytical department and use data to provide a unique and fresh decision making process is a storyline we'll be closely following over the year and, really, over the next three to five seasons. I’m honestly a bit skeptical that this is a real thing and not just a bit of lip service being paid to a market that is saturated with the idea of smart management.
Maybe that’s a bit pessimistic, but it seems like the majority of teams still don’t even take advantage of the data license they have with Opta under the umbrella of the league offices. In fact, it’s downright shocking to me that an organization that is as penny pinching as Houston isn't using nerds with numbers to make the most of their money.
Let me step down off my soap box and let’s talk some Forever Orange.
The (new) Coach
Owen Coyle is a guy that’s shown some tactical flexibility in his time with Bolton and Wigan, often using the players he has and keeping them within the roles for which they are best suited. His time with both English clubs was more of a case of disaster management than a true push for promotion.
The question at this point surrounding Coyle is if he can make the transition to coaching in MLS versus coaching in Europe. I’m sure there are changes in both culture and tactics, and there is not much history of MLS success by managers coming from foreign leagues. That said, Matt Jordan will help alleviate confusion surrounding roster rules and Coyle is primarily responsible for what happens on the pitch, which should help minimize the distractions of MLS's rules and off-field nuances.
Going into just about any camp you’ll always hear a coach preach about competition. Why? Because if you have someone pushing you the belief is that you can achieve more than what you might have. The 14th and 15th century is rife with these examples; much of the artwork produced in Florentine, Italy was out of competition and rivalry between skilled artists.
Tyler Deric had a solid first half of the season by the accounts of most fans on social media and his ascension to the thrown of starting keeper looked rather secure. But after acquiring former DC backup Joe Willis, there is now an open camp competition for the job.
Still, I’d be surprised to see Deric not made the starter. According to our Expected Goals (xG) data, he saved nearly three goals that the average goalkeeper wouldn't have, all in less than half a season of play. I've preached that xG numbers for goalies this isn't necessarily a good method by which you can determined talent, but I think it can certainly validate the eye test and what many supporters already thought of Deric.
But Willis isn't a bad keeper either. While we have three years of data for Willis, it only accounts for 103 shots faced, which isn't really even a full season. If we are using roughly the same sample size to judge both Deric and Willis, it would seem Deric may be the better keeper.
Last year was a bit rough on the defensive side. Sometimes a team's goals and shots surrendered numbers aren't as bad as they look. But last year Houston might have been one of the worst defensive teams last season, giving up roughly 1.7 expected goals per match, the most by any team in MLS, and second worst over the last four years.
The thing about MLS is that with the budgetary constraints it leave little in the way of adequate depth. Having replacement level defensive players on your bench is rarely something that happens. Instead, teams are stuck using either inexperienced players or below average MLS players.
The team settled for the later and went with rookie AJ Cochran. While Cochran was serviceable in a pinch, it was a lot of pressure to be put on a rookie. While Cochran improved as the season went on, it doesn't look like Houston is making the same mistake twice as they threw some mighty big pennies at 27-year old Catalonian centerback Raul Rodriguez, who terminated his contract with RCD Espanyol to be in Houston at the start of the season.
Rodriguez has played roughly 80 games in the Spanish first division of La Liga and has taken on some tough competition. Based off data supplied by Whoscored and Squawka, we can make an educated statement that Rodriguez was one of Espanyol's better defenders, which despite their mediocre standing in the table, is a compliment. Also, Rodriguez won nearly 60% of all headers and a bit over 60% of all his tackles in Spain, suggesting he can read the game and knows when to pounce.
With Rodriguez almost assured at least one of the CB positions, that leaves either Jermaine Taylor or David Horst, two starting caliber MLS central defenders still on the roster from last season, to fight it out for the other position.
While the lesser athletic and technical of the two, Horst is a bully of a defender (lead Houston in total duels won, 191) and is great at clearing out the ball, winning 72% of aerial duels. However, I'm leaning towards the thought that Taylor will win the job, at least in the short term, because of his leadership, athleticism and positional awareness that might just end up meshing better with Rodriguez.
Give someone within the organization a lot of credit for some how convincing Corey Ashe to stick around, even after he was kind of tossed aside when DeMarcus Beasley arrived. While DMB is a great fullback, maybe one of the best in MLS, Ashe was no slouch and had been involved with the US 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup team. He can play either side and should the team decide to push Beasley into the midfield they have excellent depth.
Looking to the other side of the field, Kofi Sarkodie is a great right back and doesn't get the respect he deserves. Over 2871 minutes last year he delivered 24 passes that resulted in shots, 5th most for defenders and worth almost three expected assists.
The deepest and most talented part of this team comes from the midfield. Ricardo Clark, Boniek Garcia, Alex Lopez, Luis Garrido, Leonel Miranda and the granddaddy Brad Davis will all expect get regular minutes from Owen Coyle. I’m leaving out Giles Barnes here being that he is something of combination of attacking midfielder and striker. But make no mistake, Barnes has been a revelation over the past two seasons by collecting 22 expected goals from 5,700 minutes and may occasionally play as an attacking midfielder.
Davis of course has the mighty boot of <insert your favorite greek god> but he’s getting on in age (33) and playing right in front of the also-aging DeMarcus Beasley could create some overload opportunities for fast opposing teams. Garrido and Clark are going to have to do some work dropping back to save Davis from running 10+ miles a match. If successful, they are going to keep a top-10 goal creator who projects for almost 9 expected assists over 2500 minutes on the field.
The Dynamo are also going to need Garcia to be more effective out wide on the right wing. In the 2013 season Garcia produced nearly seven expected assists (xA) over 1900 minutes, but the Honduran dropped down to only four xA in 2200 minutes last season, effectively doing less with more. Obviously last year was a World Cup year and playing in the summer heat in Houston is a bit more intensive than any other part of the country, but last season might be an indicator of continued decline in his play.
Two words: Cubo. Torres.
Torres is a top-10 goal scorer. Last year he produced the fifth highest xG* in MLS (15.20) on one of the worst teams in the league, and with no support. In the 2013 season with only 1300 minutes and on perhaps the single worst club in MLS history he managed to inch his way into top-30 expected goals scored (6.19).
Over the past two seasons, Torres has averaged more expected goals created per 90 minutes than Javier Morales, Marco Di Vaio or even Brad Davis. Creating almost four shots a game, In other words, in two MLS seasons Torres has scored 22 goals over a period when he would have expected 24. He is about finding the back of the net and does it regularly with both position and technical ability. If trends continue, he projects to score 15 goals over a 2,500 minute season.
But he's not alone. Somewhat surprisingly, Will Bruin is right there with him, projecting to also score near 15 goals over 2,500 minutes. But over the past four years Bruin has scored 35 goals, while he was expected to score 53. Finishing talent plays into that and while I am skeptical about how that talent plays into these sorts of things, it’s fair to say that Bruin has had some… well, frustrating moments.
Oh, and add all those accomplishments of Giles Barnes that I mentioned above and the maturing Jason Johnson, who has left some impressions that he could profile as a starting caliber striker in MLS in the future.
In short, Coyle is going to have some options at his disposal. Considering Torres is (probably) going to be in Mexico the first few months of the season. there will some opportunity early on in the season for one of these role players to make a name for themselves. However, the eventual pairing of both Torres and Bruin together is likely to create a lot of chances that are going to lead to plenty of goals, regardless of whether either of them are “clinical” finishers. They’re going to create both quality and quantity, which is a very scary combination.
In 2014 Houston had a good attack, they found plenty of shots, scored plenty of goals and kept things tough against their opponents. But they easily had one of the worst defenses in MLS history last year and I can't help but think they played below their talent level, which is a weird thing to say about a Dom Kinnear team.
The team added two huge talents, a bit of depth, and they are seeking new ways to make their team better over the season. The Dynamo is going to challenge for points and position in the table. With lots of depth and a strong attack they're going to be able to stay fresh farther into the season than most MLS clubs.
I don't think it's beyond this group of players to win the Supporter Shield. That said, I think a three or four seed is more likely. I can't envision a season where they don't make the playoffs, and it would be a big disappointment for that to happen for a second year in a row.
*minimum 2500 minutes played to qualify