HOUSTON – For many years, the book on the Houston Dynamo was, 'do not allow them set pieces.' But for the past three seasons that book was a work of fiction.
From 2012 to 2014, Houston’s presumed dominance and reliance on set pieces became a leftover myth from days past when the club truly feasted off service. Under new head coach Owen Coyle, Houston have rekindled that magic in 2015.
With 10 of their 21 goals off restarts, the Dynamo are once again league leaders and setting a historic pace.
What has caused the renaissance? Coyle is not giving much away, but one thing remains the same: Execution is a constant.
“The way modern technology is, anyways, everybody can see what you did the game before and the game before that,” Coyle said. “What I think is important is that we try to be fresh, try to be inventive at different times when possible. Within that, we try and vary what we’re doing.”
The service side of Houston’s formula is very familiar. Houston’s Brad Davis has been the main provider of set piece goals this season, tallying seven assists from dead-ball situations. Coupled with Alex Lopez, and Boniek Garcia to a lesser extent, the Dynamo are not hurting for quality service.
Delivering the ball into the right spots with pace and precision makes the success possible.
On the other end of the connection, Houston have found players who can go attack the ball. Unlike in years past where their team was dominated by tall defenders (and burly players in general), Dynamo have only four field players over six feet tall: David Horst (6-foot-4), AJ Cochran (6-foot-3), and Will Bruin and Giles Barnes (both 6-foot-2).
“I think we’ve been a little more aggressive this year,” Horst said. “We know what we want to do in there and we have a lot of confidence right now in the box. That’s the biggest thing, having confidence and knowing that wherever they put the ball there will be someone on the end of it.
Without an overwhelming height advantage, it comes down to the tactics that show up on film for Coyle.
“We’ve changed it a little bit on set pieces with the way we attack them, and have done some new set pieces,” Davis said. “When you bring some new stuff into the fold, it kind of opens guys' eyes. The biggest thing is, set pieces are all about belief – for and against.”
Horst has two assists off set pieces this season, winning a ball for Nathan Sturgis to finish in a 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy and setting up Bruin to ripple the net against New York City FC. Those designs have helped Houston climb the ladder to the top of the league's set-piece rankings.
“It’s a mentality, set pieces – offensively and defensively – and right now we have a lot of confidence and the right mentality when we’re in the box,” Horst said.
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With 47 percent of the Dynamo's goals have come on set pieces, putting them on pace to post the highest such ratio in team history.
While that proportion is high, there is little concern that the team is too reliant on set pieces, given how well they're working. Houston’s 10 set-piece goals already eclipse their totals from the past three years and match their 2011 total.
Their record for set-piece goals in a season is 17, set in 2011, the year the club made a run to the MLS Cup final.
“It’s all about belief,” Davis said. “I know these guys believe, and I believe, that I’m going to put in a good ball or Bonie’s going to put in a good ball and the service is going to be good – and then to make good, hard runs.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.