Houston’s headed for another rebuild.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
Houston’s new ownership, front office and head coach all got to experience their first year in charge together, and it didn’t go great. They did have the typical decent start to the year – a Dynamo hallmark, no matter who’s been in charge – but that went south real fast and stayed not great until it went beyond that into actively bad territory, which ultimately cost Paulo Nagamura his job.
Everything from April onwards laid bare how much work the folks in charge have to do.
Formation and tactics
Nagamura, who comes from the Peter Vermes coaching tree, was brought in to institute something like the vaunted high pressing, 4-3-3 system that made Vermes’ Sporting KC side a borderline dynasty for a decade.
It didn’t really work. Houston were just 18th in passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) – a rough measure of how hard teams press – as per TruMedia by StatsPerform. That was all compounded by how if they didn’t have Darwin Quintero (who doesn’t defend at all) out on the field, they couldn’t generate anything to speak of going forward.
The players didn’t fit the system, and subsequently they seemed to stop buying in.
In the first match of the post-Nagamura era, under interim coach Kenny Bundy, Houston came out in a bog-standard 4-2-3-1 with Quintero as a typical 10. They were held scoreless.
As mentioned the Dynamo had their usual good start, the high point of which was a 3W-0L-1D run from March 12 to April 9 (they’ve gone 5W-15L-4D since then as of this writing).
I think that has to get the nod, though there are arguments for two other moments:
- When they exercised the purchase clause for Coco Carrasquilla. He’s damn good.
- Hector Herrera’s debut.
HIGHLIGHTS: Houston Dynamo FC vs. FC Dallas | July 09, 2022
Watch the whole, four-minute clip. Hell, if you’ve got ESPN+, go back and watch that whole game. It was insane.
Houston hasn’t had vibes like that in a decade.
A four-game losing streak from late-July to mid-August is probably it, because snuggled within that stretch was a record-setting 6-0 humiliation at the hands (feet?) of a rampant Philly side that just ripped Houston limb from limb.
The worst part of it was obviously the scoreline, but also, look at this XI:
This is not Houston’s YOLO lineup. It’s not ultra-defensive by any stretch, but it’s not the type of team you throw out there worried they’re going to get gashed. And yet Philly absolutely trucked ‘em.
Even more worrying is that six of these guys were new signings for this year via one mechanism or another. So while the previous regime has a significant amount of culpability with regard to how things are in Houston at the moment, Pat Onstad & Co. really don’t seem to have made a ton of headway in Year 1 with regard to repairing the damage that’d already been done.
It all ultimately cost Nagamura his job in early September. That, obviously, is the other low point.
Nobody. First-round SuperDraft pick Thor Ulfarsson had a fairly promising season – I think he’ll be good – but he wasn’t revelatory, and overall the Dynamo are still a club that does not really push their academy talent through to their first team, so nobody’s truly come via that pathway. And the young South Americans they brought in either didn’t or barely featured.
Underperforming veterans and no clear pipeline for young talent to get on the field and improve? Yikes.
For years Dynamo fans were screaming for an ownership change and a front office change, and in the middle of last year they got both. And I think from that perspective, the biggest disappointment from 2022 is there really turned out to be little-to-no onfield progress in spite of the above. The new ownership is clearly more willing to spend – they literally did so in bringing in Herrera and DP center forward Sebastian Ferreira – but that didn’t lead to more attractive play or better results. It just led to Houston's typical place near the bottom of the standings.
So in spite of it being a new era, it felt like more of the same. Ask any Dynamo fan and it’s that, rather than any one particular player or result, that’s the most disappointing thing about 2022.
Five Players to Build Around
- Herrera (CM): He has not been good since his arrival, but he’s still got class on the ball and should be a viable starting CM in MLS for maybe two more years.
- Carrasquilla (CM): A tricky fit with Herrera – both guys are 8s – but Carrasquilla’s quality enough to make it work in the right system.
- Ferreira (FW): Seems like he could be a starting-caliber center forward, and maybe more than that with a year under his belt.
- Griffin Dorsey (RB): The latest on the youth-winger-to-MLS-fullback conveyor belt, Dorsey’s got the engine and athleticism to make it work.
- Ulfarsson (FW): They’ve played him on the wing a bit but in truth he’s a pure No. 9. Tricky fit with Ferreira, but they might be able to work together in the right set-up.
They need to sort out the midfield. As mentioned, they couldn’t really generate anything unless Quintero was on the field, but he takes so much off the plate with his lack of defense or off-ball work that you need to construct everything else around him. But you can’t really do that with No. 8s like Herrera and Carrasquilla, both of whom are ball-playing, ball-dominant central midfielders rather than box-to-box ball-winners.
And even with those two guys out there and Quintero not, d-mid Matias Vera has been below par, and the center backs (no matter what combo of center backs Nagamura tried) have been below that. If Steve Clark didn’t have himself a quietly excellent year at goalkeeper, this team would’ve been down around 20 points.
So they need a ruthless assessment of the spine of the team, and then they need a ruthless assessment of their possible head coaching candidates. Do they dare try a first-time MLS head coach again? Is it worth it to ring the mercurial Dome Torrent, who chafed at MLS roster restrictions? Is it foolish to wait and see if Tata Martino’s interested after the World Cup with Mexico? Does Alessandro Nesta, who's expressed a desire to return to MLS as a manager, make sense?
They better be pretty far down the road with answers to these questions or 2023 will end up looking a lot like 2022 did, and 2021 before that, etc. etc. etc.