For a good long chunk of 2017 I was waiting for the bottom to drop out on the Houston Dynamo. And for a good long chunk of 2017 it seemed like the moment was at hand. Sure, they'd gotten off to that galloping start and given themselves some cushion in a weakened Western Conference, but by mid-May the counterattack opportunities had dried up and so the wins mostly did as well.
Houston went 6-3-1 out of the gate, then won just four games over the next four months. Most other years that probably would've punched their ticket early, but in 2017 it was enough to keep them above the playoff line, and they of course made it all the way to the Western Conference Championship.
So what happened? Why didn't the bottom fall out?
Basically this: they didn't win a lot during that four-month stretch, but they never let their tailspin become a death spiral by taking a bunch of Ls in a row. If you're drawing games it's not great, but at least you're denying full points to the guys across the midfield stripe from you, you know?
And they did that by never giving up cheap goals:
The Dynamo weren't a lockdown defensive team who utterly dominated their opponents. It just wasn't how they were constructed, nor how they intended to play.
But they were engaged, efficient and responsible in how they approached every single set piece, and if you do that you give yourself a puncher's chance. Cheap goals ruin teams, and the Dynamo got pretty far just by virtue of not conceding those.
If they want to get farther in 2018, they have to keep that up and then they have to discover another option in attack. Pretty much all they did last year was either counter, score on set pieces themselves (they'll regress to the mean on that in 2018, by the way), or go in isolation on the wings. It worked well enough – 50 points and an appearance in the "final four," remember – but the West is better this year, and guys like Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto have been scouted. A reprise of 2017 isn't a high-percentage play.
No, the Dynamo need a Plan B. Best guess is that involves getting a little bit more possession further up the field and trying to play through Tomas Martinez, the Young Designated Player who's not quite a playmaker but sure does like to combine around the box. This doesn't quite maximize the strengths of the Honduran contingent, but it would likely increase Houston's margins in terms of how well they need to play to get three points.
Lots of "ifs" and hypotheticals there, and I'll admit I still kind of expect the bottom to drop out on them. It honestly wouldn't shock me to see the Dynamo below the playoff line come October.
But at the very least they have a successful blueprint to work from. Last year it was enough to survive. If they build on that, it might end up being enough to compete.