Houston Dynamo: Doing More with Less / by Joseph Lowery

By Joseph Lowery (@joeincleats)

The battle for a Western Conference playoff spot is an absolute dog fight. After Sporting Kansas City, who are currently sitting on top of the West, there is only a four point gap between second place and ninth place. LAFC, Portland, FC Dallas, Houston, Vancouver, LA Galaxy, Minnesota, and Real Salt Lake are all currently sitting together, cramped right in the middle. Out of all those teams, there is one particular organization doing some especially impressive things - on and off the field. In this week’s team breakdown, we are going to take a look at the Houston Dynamo. Houston has managed to do more with less than anybody else in Major League Soccer and people have started to take notice, especially after a very impressive result at home against New York City FC (believe it or not, this article was planned even before that 3-1 win). So, now that eyes are opening across the MLS landscape, we are going take a comprehensive look at just what exactly the Dynamo are doing well and how exactly they are doing it. In order to do so, we are going to start off the field and work our way on to it. Let’s start with the second half of the title.

…with less:

Houston has the smallest total team salary in all Major League Soccer, at $5,673,471.63. Logically, they also have the lowest average salary in the league, with $195,636.95. The next closest team is Vancouver, whose average salary is $257,281.62. Looking around the league, we see that the next team down on the salary list, D.C. United, doles out more than a million more in salary than the Dynamo and Major League Soccer’s highest spending team, Toronto FC, spend over four times as much on their roster as Houston.  

Star winger Alberth Elis (there will be more on him later, believe me) is the team’s highest paid player, making $650,340.00 in guaranteed compensation. That number is just high enough to put Elis inside the top 100 highest paid players in the league, at number 93. The Dynamo really do have Elis on a bargain contract, and just to really emphasize this point, not only does Elis get paid less than 92 other players, but one of those players is Brek Shea.

Outside of Elis, the Dynamo only have two other players in the top 200 in terms of guaranteed compensation: recently signed Swedish fullback Adam Lundqvist and attacking midfielder Tomas Martinez. But the bargain deals don’t stop there; most of Houston’s other key players are on team friendly contracts as well. In fact, all of the rest of the Dynamo’s players with 500+ minutes so far this year sit below the 200 mark:

  • Midfielder Juan David Cabezas is 212th in MLS in terms of total compensation
  • Left back Demarcus Beasley is 213th 
  • Midfielder Darwin Ceren is 216th
  • Striker Mauro Manotas is 225th
  • Midfielder Eric Alexander is 228th
  • Winger Romell Quioto is 234th
  • Fullback Adolfo Machado is 252nd
  • Swiss army knife Andrew Wenger is 257th
  • Center back Leonardo is 320th
  • Center back Alejandro Fuenmayor is 415th

It’s painfully obvious from these numbers that the Houston Dynamo have built something special off the field. They have managed to put together the most cost effective, trim roster in Major League Soccer. Still, Houston isn’t just doing more than the rest of the league in the front office, they are doing more on the field too.

doing more…offensively

Team Games Shots/g SoT/g Goals/g xGF/g Pts/g
Houston 11 16.2 7.1 2.36 2.2 1.6
Toronto 11 17.1 5.9 1.18 1.9 0.9
New York Red Bulls 11 14.6 6.5 2.36 1.9 2.0
LAFC 12 17.2 5.6 1.75 1.9 1.8
Sporting Kansas City 13 18.7 6.1 1.85 1.8 1.9

Houston is putting up some really solid offensive numbers. Wilmer Cabrera’s team is scoring 2.36 goals per game, which puts them tied for first in MLS with Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls. However, while the Dynamo and the Red Bulls are tied in goals per game, ASA’s model gives the expected goals edge to Houston, whose 2.16 xGF per game easily leads the league. In fact, the Dynamo are the only team to average over 2.00 expected goals per game so far this year.

When we look at the shots data, it’s easy to see why Houston is so high in the goals and expected goals categories. The Dynamo sit fourth in shots per game with 16.2, and very first in shots on target per game with 7.1. Looking at goals and shots together, the Dynamo are third in MLS in terms of finishing percentage (goals divided by shots) with 14.6% of their shots resulting in goals.

Looking at player specific numbers, there is one obvious star lighting up the stat sheets in Houston. Right now, Elis is having one of the most impressive seasons of any single player in MLS. His 48 shots are good for third in the league and his 24 shots on target lead all Major League Soccer. Alberth Elis is also in the top five in terms of both goals (seven) and assists (four) so far this season. Looking at his expected numbers, while factoring in penalties and free kicks, Elis is second in expected goals plus expected assists with 12.3. When you remove those set pieces, he is first in Major League Soccer with 11.5 xG+xA. 

Non-Free Kick/Penalty xG+xA Leaders
Player Team Min Pos Shots SoT Dist Solo Goals xG xPlace G-xG KeyP Assts xA A-xA xG+xA
Alberth Elis HOU 995 A 47 23 14.8 0.149 6 8.00 0.9 -2 14 4 3.5 0.50 11.5
Gyasi Zardes CLB 1305 F 41 15 14.1 0.293 7 8.30 -1.8 -1.3 13 0 2 -2.00 10.3
Ola Kamara LAG 1045 F 28 11 12.7 0.107 5 6.90 -1.7 -1.9 16 0 1.6 -1.60 8.5
Josef Martinez ATL 1073 F 24 15 11.4 0.167 6 7.30 0.3 -1.3 8 1 1.1 -0.10 8.4
Miguel Almiron ATL 1175 A 53 14 23.1 0.302 2 4.30 -0.3 -2.3 27 5 4.1 0.90 8.4

And the production doesn’t stop there. Every player in Houston’s front three (Elis, Mauro Manotas, and Romell Quito) has over 5.0 xG+xA. Only three other teams in the league have an attack that can match those numbers: LAFC, San Jose Earthquakes, and Sporting Kansas City. This balanced attacking production is clearly very unique in MLS and is a big reason why Houston are a team to watch for the rest of this season.

doing more…defensively?

They Dynamo’s defense is really nothing special. While they give up the third fewest shots per game (10.9) and the sixth fewest shots on target against per game (4.4), they are still in the middle third of Major League Soccer in terms of goals allowed per game (1.64). Why are the shots against low, but the goals allowed high? Houston’s finishing percentage against (calculated by dividing the number of goals allowed by the number of shots suffered) is 15.0%, the highest in Major League Soccer. Either the Dynamo are giving up way too many high value opportunities in front of goal, or their opponents are finishing well above the median. Still, despite this mediocre defensive output, if Houston’s finishing percentage against returns to a more normal figure, resulting in fewer goals allowed, they will be even tougher to deal with on the field.

From looking at salary numbers, we see just how impressive a job Houston’s front office has done creating a roster in an efficient fashion. From looking at the on-field numbers, we see how well Wilmer Cabrera has done taking that roster and putting the players in the best possible positions to thrive. As we start to see the dust settle on the Western Conference playoff battle, look for the Houston Dynamo’s well-crafted squad to finish well inside the top six.