I’ve been wracking my brain over the past few weeks trying to determine which was more shocking to me:
As stunned as I still am by what St. Louis accomplished, I think I’ve got to go with door No. 2. The Dynamo – the freaking Dynamo, who have only rarely been good and almost never watchable over the past decade – freaking balled out to the extent that they became every neutral’s favorite Western Conference team and earned a spot at or near the top of everyone’s watchability rankings. All with Olsen, always known as a pragmatist and a motivator but never an aesthete or a tactician, calling the shots.
If you had put this outcome on the board at 1000-to-1 odds back in February, I’d have laughed in your face. But…
I was screaming. And folks, you all watched it, right? You all know Houston scored about a dozen goals just like this one (and 60-odd others across all competitions on top of that), right?
The last time a team came from this far out of nowhere to become this damn fun was… probably the Goonies? But for entirely different reasons and with almost completely inverted styles.
By about mid-August, I woke up every Saturday absolutely jonesing for 90 minutes of Houston Dynamo soccer. I am stunned.
What a year.
Formation & Tactics
It started as a 4-3-3 with a single pivot. But by about the final third of the season, it became much more of a lopsided 4-2-3-1 with Coco Carrasquilla – nominally the right winger – coming inside to create a central overload and a runway for marauding right back Griffin Dorsey.
Whatever you want to tag the formation as, everything good the Dynamo did flowed from that midfield, and specifically from the midfield’s ability to go get on the ball and dictate where on the field the game was played, and at what tempo. (Héctor Herrera, after a miserable debut half-season in 2022, was arguably the best player in the league in 2023, and Artur was back to his very best as HH’s bodyguard.)
Here’s a passage from a column on FC Barcelona’s style back in the day – I’m talking Pep-era Barça – by The Athletic’s John Mulller:
There’s a research paper from 2013 that went looking for evidence of what made peak Barcelona special and found it in patterns called 'pass motifs.' For each sequence of three completed passes, the researchers coded the players involved as letters: if Player A passes to Player B, who slides it back to Player A, who turns and sends it the other way to Player C, that sequence would be coded with the motif ABAC.
The study found that Barcelona were a lot more likely than other teams to rely on those triangular ABAC sequences and less likely to play the more strung-out ABCD motif, where three passes involved four different players. Compared to all 97 other teams in the top five leagues in 2012-13, Barcelona’s passing patterns were utterly original.
I would bet my life’s savings that the Dynamo had orders of magnitude more ABAC passing sequences this season than the next closest competitor. Even Columbus – brilliant on the ball and gorgeous to watch in their own right – don’t really do a tiki-taka thing.
The Dynamo really, really did.
The club’s first trophy in five years and fourth in their history. They did it on the road in front of a hostile crowd and in the face of what seemed like destiny (even without Messi, Miami were considered huge favorites in that game).
Houston were great. Nothing ever beats winning a trophy.
I think it’s three losses in five to start the season, and just five goals from those games.
At the time it was pretty easy to point at them and say Olsen was an unambitious hire by an unambitious team, and the freezing-out of last year’s top scorer, DP No. 9 Sebastián Ferreira, was the harbinger of a season on the struggle bus that would result in an organization-wide reset ahead of 2024.
Obviously, all of that was wrong. And Olsen’s longstanding strength as a coach – the ability to get teams to dig themselves out of a hole even when it seems like the odds are against them – surely had a massive role to play come mid-April when things finally started to click.
But yeah, for about six weeks there, things were pretty bleak.
Dorsey, a former Generation adidas attacker who was a first-round pick of Toronto FC back in 2019, had bounced around several spots for the Dynamo over the previous two years, never officially locking down a job at any of them. Sometimes you’d see him on the right wing, other times inverted on the left, and then more often, in 2022, he’d come out as an attacking right back.
The story is that, in 2023, he came to the staff before the season started and asked to be made into a full-time right back. By mid-July, though, he was a forgotten man – he’d started just twice in league play and once more in the Open Cup. Other than that he was a little-used sub.
He finally got his chance in Leagues Cup, starting all four games. And it turns out that when you have a midfield that’s going to dominate the ball against most teams, getting a hyper-athletic right back with an attacker’s instincts out there to provide width and penetration… yeah, it turns out that rules.
So Dorsey kept starting, and kept scoring, and kept adding dimensions to his game on and off the ball. It’s to the point now where getting him a new, long-term contract is a huge priority this offseason (he's currently a free agent).
What could this team have done with an elite, attacking DP? Why send Ferreira away on loan, but not address that hole in the summer window?
Five Players to Build Around
- Herrera (CM): He’ll be 34 early next year, but looked fresh all season long.
- Artur (DM): Was arguably the best d-mid in the league this year.
- Dorsey (RB): An elite attacker at that spot.
- Erik Sviatchenko (CB): His arrival in the summer window made everything easier on both sides of the ball.
- Micael (CB): The young Brazilian had instant chemistry with Sviatchenko and has the makings of a future Best XI candidate.
The Dynamo have 8s in the hole and just saw another on the flop. It’s not a perfect hand – not a no-doubt-about-it guaranteed winner – but it’s good enough to bet large, and especially when you’re not sure you’re going to be able to stay at the table much longer.
And given the age of Herrera, Sviatchenko and goalkeeper Steve Clark (another very good season), the time to go all-in is now. They’ve already got one DP slot open since Teenage Hadebe has bid farewell, and now they’ve got to do what it takes to part with Ferreira to open another. With those spots they have to bring in two high-level match-winners in the attack, because the window is probably going to shut after 2024.
Of course, they also probably have to replace Carrasquilla as well:
Can they talk him into one more year in MLS? If he stays and they add those two attacking DPs (and retain Dorsey and Corey Baird, and get a left-footed left back), this group goes into next season as one of the absolute favorites.
If he leaves, though, that might be just enough to derail the whole thing, since Coco was almost as important a part of that midfield hive-mind as Herrera or Artur. Replace him with a guy who’s got 10% less flair and is 3% less comfortable on the ball in a crowd, and is that enough to tip the margins away from the tiki-taka of 2023?
Maybe. I hope not, but… maybe.
We’ll see. The Dynamo had themselves a remarkable year, but GM Pat Onstad’s got a ton on his plate if this team’s going to find another level to hit in 2024.