If you were to line up every team in the league into some sort of 11x100 relay sprint, the Houston Dynamo would probably be favorites. Their ability to get their wingers way out wide and then play them around the edge and into space has just broken teams, thoroughly and repeatedly, since March.


And thus, you have the Dynamo gameplan on Tuesday night against the visiting Seattle Sounders (9:30 pm ET; FS1 & FOX Deportes in the US | TSN 1/3 & TVAS in Canada) in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Championship. Houston want to play into space, and the Sounders are expert at limiting the space that can be played into, and whoever does a better job of unwinding that necessary tension will be the team that advances to MLS Cup against either Toronto or Columbus.


Houston's adeptness at this comes from the blinding pace and creative skillset of guys like Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, Mauro Manotas and Vicente Sanchez. All four have spent time on the flanks (Manotas is more of a center forward, and should be played there), but also because their central midfield has been highly mobile and functional for most of the season. Witness Alex finding a pocket and playing Elis through:

Good movement through the middle can unleash Houston's sprinters, and Elis in particular is a one-man wrecking crew. Just by virtue of being on the field he destroys a team's defensive shape – center backs have to edge a bit further out of the middle in order to provide "oh-crap-oh-crap-oh-crap-the-fullback-just-got-skinned" support that most other wingers in the league don't necessary call for.


The good news for Seattle is twofold. First, in Nouhou Tolo they have a left back who can match Elis stride-for-stride. While that's not surety against any kind of break-out (get caught out or lean the wrong way just a little bit and you're not going to catch up to Elis even if you have a rocket attached to your back), it's a certain level of security most teams don't have.


Second is that in Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, they have what's been the league's best central defense for the past four or five months. The Sounders are 11-0-6 with a +25 goal differential when those two guys start over the last half-season, which is pretty, pretty good. They're both old(ish) and slow(ish), but they've also "been there, done that" in a way that means they're probably not going to be too unnerved by anything the Dynamo throw at them.


So I don't see how the Dynamo get this done unless they're able to control central midfield. On paper, it's a mismatch in favor of Seattle. In reality, the Sounders have often been pretty meh in that part of the pitch – they move the ball too slowly and allow teams to recover fairly easily – and Houston, with Eric Alexander, have been one of the league's best teams.


They're 10-2-3 with a +15 goal differential across all competitions when he starts, and it comes down to his ability to get on the ball in traffic and then complete useful passes. I'm not talking game-breaking, defense-splitting passes, but rather the kind of clever between-the-lines play that undid the Timbers in the previous round. When they ran out of ideas, they got the ball to Alexander and he usually did something good with it, as our own Ben Baer wrote.


The flip side to Alexander's presence in possession is that he simply doesn't cover as much ground as the other options. So yes, if he's out there, that's an invitation for Cristian Roldan to make crafty, direct runs out of central midfield:

Those are tough to track. When Roldan's doing that, Seattle are orders of magnitude more difficult to keep under wraps simply because you have to honor the run, which means you have to pull defenders a few steps away from the likes of Clint Dempsey or Nicolas Lodeiro. That's a recipe for conceding goals.


I'm not sure how many goals there will be in this one, though. A scoreless first leg seems to suit both teams – each showed as much in the previous round – and "caginess" has been the order of the day in the Western Conference playoffs thus far. Don't expect this one to be open even if there's a ton of attacking potential on display from the start.