The New York Red Bulls go into the Eastern Conference semifinals as favorites.
This is weird, because the Houston Dynamo have been to the last two MLS Cups, and because Dom Kinnear is the second-best postseason coach in MLS history. They should be favorites.
But this is also not weird, because the Red Bulls often go into their opening playoff round as favorites. They were last year, against D.C. United, and they were two years before that, against San Jose. They've been favorites quite often, because they win the "how's it look on paper?" talent battle against almost everyone.
Now that the Curse of Caricola is broken, they're not just favorites on paper. People actually expect them to win -- especially because they've absolutely smoked Houston this year. Doused them in gasoline and set them on fire.
Here are a couple of tactical notes ahead of Sunday's showdown (3:30 pm ET; NBC)
Get direct into the final third
The Dynamo are a very sound defensive team that can scramble well to cope with either long build-up, or smart build-up, or both. But they are bizarrely vulnerable to direct play into the final third.
The Red Bulls have happily made use of that time and time again:
Obviously they're not going to score off the kick today (I'll bet you a million dollars they don't). But there will be times where Houston are compressing the midfield, and New York finds avenues of attack either directly over the top, or with a cutting through-ball.
Peguy Luyindula, of all people, turns out to be the true danger man for Houston to keep an eye on:
If he's given that much time, he will pick passes that rip up the defense. But if you press too tight, you run the risk of getting exposed over the top.
It's a delicate balance, and there's no easy answer, nor is there a right answer that will work 100 percent of the time. Got to play the percentages if you're in orange.
Deny Boniek the ability to pick his spots
People don't seem to realize that the Dynamo have become Boniek Garcia's team, and that the reason they've done so is because he is absolutely an elite attacking weapon.
Look at the numbers below. Boniek's keeping some good company, especially on a per minute basis:
|Player||Chances Created from Open Play||Minutes|
|García, Oscar Boniek||50||1899|
|Le Toux, Sebastien||46||2222|
"Deny Boniek" is basically a repeat of my scouting report from the Houston vs. Montreal game.
But it really is worth repeating, so here you go, Red Bull fans: Your team has to make Boniek a winger, not a playmaker. Force him to cross the ball hopefully into the area, where Jamison Olave should dominate, instead of allowing him to combine in and around the box.
If Boniek is able to combine in and around the box, he will either set up Will Bruin for a chance (he's finishing those now, by the way), or draw a PK.
Take it from Hernan: