By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
Maybe Houston is a bottom of the Western Conference barrel team, maybe they’re fighting for the last spot. Not to limit a season or story that has yet to be played out. But there probably isn’t much in the way variance in how this season ends for the boys in Orange. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves just yet.
2015 in review
The first week of November 2014 saw the Houston Dynamo fully shift into a new direction as just a month prior saw their only manager in franchise history, Dominic Kinnear, leave and return to San Jose.
President Chris Canetti announced the organization's pursuit of not just a replacement for Kinnear, who was the team’s coach and organizational decision maker, but a new direction, ethos and brand. Matt Jordan was hired away from rival Montreal as the first Technical Director, General Manager and Vice President in Dynamo history.
A month later, Canetti called Owen Coyle, a veteran commander of many English Premier League relegation battles, and handed him the coaching reigns. The Englishman gladly accepted and found himself in new colors, a new country and likely a new definition of heat.
The question I’ve had since last December is whether or not Coyle is the right man for the job. Jordan was hired with a very pronounced intention to implement use of analytics into the team and organization. Coyle has a past history of grinding out results based upon quantity and volume, which isn’t necessarily a recipe for long term success. But, in fairness he hasn’t had the horses to do much else.
Looking at the 2015 season, I imagine most would agree that the first season didn’t go quite how most would have believed. There wasn’t a dream of winning an MLS Cup or Supporter's Shield storybook ending to the season. I think expectations were properly weighted, but despite that things still fell short.
Without going into deep specifics, our numbers favored the Orange defensively, despite at times giving away some goals that they absolutely shouldn’t have. But they limited both shots and leverage of opportunities. The problem wasn’t so much with their defense, as you could probably make a case that it was really the dearth of offense that caused their playoff shortage.
Houston’s brute force style and sometimes neanderthal tactics grained against the talented personnel they have at their disposal. Their attacking presence was paltry if not disappointing, ranking 16th in total shots, 14th in what I call “pretty creation” which is shots inside the six yard box added with through ball key passes and it’s arguable that their finishing was a bit lucky at 33% and seventh in the league considering where the majority of their shots came from. This despite flaunting three above average attackers it’s fair to say this is disappointing, and while the season was filled with a giant ‘meh’ this is what I circle as what needs to change in 2016.
Goalkeepers and Defense
Their keeper choice between Joe Willis and Tyler Deric is quietly a great situation and maybe one of the best in MLS. Neither is a superstar but they’re both solid, paid reasonably and there isn’t any drama between the two.
The real drama surrounds the full backs, or at least it did last season. Between DeMarcus Besley's fake retirement from International play, the weird trade of Corey Ashe, the still weirder ordeal surrounding Kofie Sarkodie (who is, as I understand it, now a free-agent) and all the frustrating injuries that continually knocked their season. 2016 looks to be a simpler year.
There was also the front office making the move for Sheanon Williams. I’m not a fan of Williams and though I don’t understand all the details surrounding Sarkodie and Ashe, I’ll try to just bypass the choice and decision-making as that it can be a very tightrope to walk.
Strictly focusing on Williams as a player, when he was with Philadelphia they gave up a lot of shots from the right side of the pitch but didn’t have much in the way of defensive actions. We’re still trying to determine the relationships between defensive actions and preventing goals, but attacking down that side was probably done for a reason and it continued to be successful for reason. That’s not necessarily rooted in numbers but it’s some fair logical reasoning and should have been concerning for the Dynamo front office.
Going to the numbers more directly, this offseason I did a bit of number crunching in the way of defensive actions for central defenders which indicated David Horst is possibly one of the best defensive values in the league.
The unfortunate departure of Jermaine Taylor to Portland will be an opportunity for another imported talent from Spain in Agustín García Íñiguez aka ‘Agus’. Agus projects be the starting alongside Raul Rodriguez who, all-in-all, had a pretty solid first year.
The only question really left on the back line is how much does Beasley have left in the tank? He was very good to start the season but international appearances with the US Men’s National team during the Gold Cup and travel wore on him down last season, making him not quite the player he was to start the season. He doesn’t have the blazing speed he once did but it’s still enough to get up and down the wings. So long as he isn’t playing 3,000+ minutes this season across multiple competitions, he should be a solid piece to a defensive line without much weakness.
And... here is my obligatory Jalil Anibaba mention as he attempts to be the token average and well rounded defender that can play any position on the back line for every team in MLS at some point in his career.
The heart of this team is Ricardo Clark.
I honestly am not sure who wears the captain’s band for the club but I don’t even know if that matters much to me. Clark was a guy that did pretty much everything and did so at such an astounding level last season. He covered huge amounts of ground, was physical with tons of challenges and scored some goals through a combination of shot selection and volume.
All those nice words given, this year I hope the coaching staff, front office and supporters don’t expect the same Clark. The performance was likely one last reminder of how good Clark has been in his 13 year career. He’s not going to suddenly fall off a cliff but at 33 I think it’s safe to expect some decline.
An under the radar move to possibly supplement that decline was David Rocha. A guy that has gotten little fanfare but comes from Spain’s Segunda División and should provide depth for the midfield.
Speaking of those “lesser moves”, If you read this site or listen to our podcast you probably know that most of us here at ASA, love Christian Maidana. He generates a large amount of shots and does it via methods (through balls and fewer crosses) that lead to high probability of goals.
The downside is that he doesn’t take a lot of shots for himself, which for the position that he plays, can be construed as a bad thing with the need for more shot creation by Houston. Positionally, because he does get forward, he isn’t often going to net you a huge amount of defensive actions as he doesn’t track back or work off the ball much. He’s what some refer to as a luxury player because of those associated attributes but he’s one that could fit really well into the Houston central midfield.
Additionally, the front office checked boxes that I felt was important this off-season. They traded Brad Davis (if you’re reading this and start to get sad and/or angry, stop it. He was killing your club, contrary to what the media or “traditional” stats would have you believe), they extended Leonel Miranda--whom I think is a promising if still unproven young midfielder and they found someone for out on the wings that can inject pace (Andrew Wenger) into the line-up.
Last midfield mention is Oscar Boniek Garcia, who has a lot of talent but been largely inconsistent during his three year tour in Houston. He’s amazing for Honduras and at times worth mentioning in the same breath as any of the top wide players in CONCACAF. But during his time in MLS he’s not frequently mentioned in any top wide-midfielder ranking or comes to quick thought.
The fact the front office doesn’t get a lot of money to spend makes it difficult to cut him, when they probably don’t have the money to replace him. Which means he may be a piece off the bench which actually could work with his propensity to delivery higher quality passes into dangerous areas of the pitch.
Giles Barnes has been a great find. Despite having a drop in shots taken from more than three per game to just under three, he’s been a highly valuable asset. The down side of that is he’s dependent upon his service as nearly 78% of his shots come directly from passes.
Adding Maidana is a huge step in recovering some of those shots and increasing the quality of them. The other side of it is that he’ll likely mix things in by playing something of a wide forward role where he’ll drift back into the midfield for support and provide a bit of width too.
Another piece that helps improve Barnes' production is adding an elite piece like Erik ‘Cubo’ Torres. While it’s kind of easy to lose sight of what he did during his time in Chivas (RIP) let’s remember that it was also largely accomplished as a teenager. Torres' game is slightly starting to evolve though he obviously needs and deserves more minutes to be effective.
The problem with that is Will Bruin. Kind of.
Bruin over his recorded career has for the most part scored about as many gas our xG model would expect. He’s embodied what the Dynamo have been and that’s not great but it’s not bad either. He’s managed to put up 46 goals through 134 starts and he’s kind of solidified himself as a marketing figure and an immovable starter. With Torres' time spent in Mexico and Barnes' flexibility, Bruin has taken the reigns of single striker in Coyle’s formation and won’t be letting it go without a fight.
The battle between Torres and Bruin will likely rage through the season and while it would be simple (better?) to move towards a 4-3-3 to fit those pieces together in a way that would see the most talented players see the most minutes, it’s most likely not going to happen.
I still remain unsure of Owen Coyle. If were to be fair, 2015 should in many ways be a bit of a pass considering that it wasn’t his or Jordan’s team and that this, 2016 offseason was the first time that he had a real opportunity to target and build the team as he envisioned.
The problem with this idea is that from all the things I’ve read, Coyle was never Jordan’s pick and continues to strike me as a strange bedfellow for assembling a style and tactic that best aligns with the data driven vision.
Therein lies the issue. I can make assumptions based upon a few facts that have an untested relationship, cliche media comments, and an implied idea structure, but it only gets me so far and not enough of the picture to really make a solid judgement. That said, I can’t imagine that a season that ends with Houston outside of the playoffs allows him to keep his job.
Personally, I’d like to see some growth from the youngsters, and find a way to get Maidana, Bruin, Barnes and Torres all on the field as much as possible at the same time. Lastly, I’d like to see him make moves with his tactics and subsittutions that are more directly tied to game states.
I’m not saying he isn’t doing this already, but I feel decision making such as subs and tactics are one of the very few things that we as analysts and supporters can somewhat accurately assess.
I’d like to say that this is a team that should be a playoff team. They have the talent in a lot of places but with so many question marks it’s hard to say. I think they have enough talent that if they find a way to make the attack click and the limited shots they allow stop going into the net, they could do things that few expect or conceive as possible.
A team that could find their way into third place is possible with their talent pool. The major problem is keeping everyone healthy through the heat (which is next to impossible), though they have fewer international call-ups that take away key players at inopportune times.
They’re likely going to compete for one of the last playoff spots and while that’s going to be tough considering the stiff competition in the Western Conference, they’ve got the talent pool to do it. The massive problem is the depth of the team and how shallow their pool runs.
Losing Maidana or Barnes or even Cubo for any extended period of time greatly puts their season at risk. That’s assuming that last year’s advanced defensive metrics weren't a fluke. Sure they gave up goals, but I’m hard pressed to believe that they give up the same amount of goals if the season is replayed. Lastly, they’re doing well with bringing in Maidana, but they need a team of “other guys” or “Ron’s” to fill in the gaps.
I think the most likely expectation is finishing 7th, just missing the playoffs and keeping pace though finishing in front of Colorado.