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No need for a prologue, let's race forward into Week 11:
The Story of Tonight
Twice, this season, the Houston Dynamo have "won" the possession battle: In a 2-0 loss at New England, and in a 2-2 home draw against Minnesota United. In both games Houston ended up chasing a result for at least the last 30 minutes, and as a result got on the ball more than they otherwise would have.
Houston, you see, are better off when their opponent has the ball and is possessing with some intent. They want the team they're facing to push numbers up, and the following is why (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: The Dynamo murder you dead in the three seconds after you turn the ball over pic.twitter.com/UptQrVm6dE— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 11, 2017
Houston are a classic absorb-and-counter team, and it's served them well. But on Friday night they'll be facing Vancouver (9 pm ET; TSN1/3/4/5 in Canada | MLS LIVE in the US), who are themselves a classic absorb-and-counter team, and who will have no extra pressure to try to hold onto the ball. They're on the road after all, so a draw is fine. "Let Houston come out of their shell and take the risks" is how I'd expect them to operate.
So in its way, this is a tricker tie for the Dynamo than last weekend's visit from a more talented Orlando City team. "Styles make fights," as the saying goes, and I'm not sure that Houston have the style to dominate this fight in the way they've dominated some previous visitors.
I'll also be watching: How conservative will the Vancouver fullbacks be? Carl Robinson isn't that shy about throwing them forward, but that's been a fast and painful death for most at BBVA this year.
Right Hand Man
I got some angry Quakes fans in the comments section last weekend swearing up and down that their team isn't playing a 4-3-3 of ANY sort, and like most folks who are angry online they're wrong.
• It's true that the Quakes drop into a 4-4-2 when defending, and then a 4-4-1-1 when really pushed deep
• It's true that they play without a real winger
• That doesn't mean it's not a 4-3-3
San Jose, over the last two games, have gone in a curious formational direction, so let me break it down for you: They play a pretty standard back four with overlapping, but not unusually so, fullbacks. Their deep-lying central midfield pair of Anibal Gody and Darwin Ceren share the same broad-spectrum responsibilities (protect the backline, disrupt the opponent, win the ball and midfield and distribute forward, only occasionally push into the attack) evenly, with slight tilts to their own individual predilections. Ceren is likely to hit early, searching balls to the flanks, while Godoy is likelier to get the ball on his foot and drive forward. It's not a dogmatic thing, it's a "let these guys play to their strengths" thing.
It gets interesting up front, where the only fixed point is center forward Marco Ureña. He stays central, holds the ball up and makes driving runs into the heart of the defense with the intent of pushing the opposing backline deep. Danny Hoesen, meanwhile, operates as a target winger in possession, switching from one side to the other at various intervals depending upon match-ups.
More interesting still is how Chris Wondolowski and Jahmir Hyka work. Hyka is, for all intents and purposes, a central midfield playmaker with a penchant for drifting more towards the right channel than the left. That's in part because of his own preference, but also because it makes more room for Godoy – who's left-footed – to drive forward with the ball in the left channel.
Wondo, then is nominally a "winger" because everybody believes the 4-3-3 requires real wingers. Except he's not and it doesn't. Wondo is, instead, a guy who just wanders around in the attacking half finding space, helping build possession, lurking on the back post, and occasionally scoring a brace like he did last week. He doesn't get a lot of the ball, at all, and he only rarely occupies the right wing where he'd nominally be lined up. That allows room for Cordell Cato on the overlap, and allows room for Hyka to flare out into otherwise uncharted space. Sometimes Hyka defends more wide on the right, and sometimes Wondo does. They flip responsibilities back and forth pretty naturally.
The Germans have a word for this role (of course): Raumdeuter. Part of this might be by design, and part of it may just be because that's what the Quakes need in order to compete. But that's the thing with the raumdeuter – the role only exists because, from a holistic point of view, the team is best served when there's one guy who's given free rein rather than pigeonholed into a circumscribed set of responsibilities.
We'll see how it works out for San Jose when they visit Colorado on Saturday (4 pm ET; UniMas in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada, Facebook.com).
I'll also be watching: The most famous and best raumdeuter is Thomas Muller of Bayern Munich and Germany, and the way you neutralize him is by forcing him to defend. For the "4-3-3 in name only" to play like a 4-3-3, and the best way to do that is to get overlapping, attacking fullbacks involved.
So yes, I hope we get to see Dillon Serna start at left back for the Rapids.
The Room Where It Happens
As Andrea Pirlo has been phased out and NYCFC's midfield has leaned harder toward "functional" rather than "wildly dynamic," David Villa has gathered more and more license to drift off the frontline and tasked with finding room between the opposing midfield and backline. When he does that, he rips teams up (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: David Villa's great, Nemanja Nikolic's clever, and Abu Danladi? The rookie showed some stuff pic.twitter.com/4fk2qgJkeo— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 9, 2017
Sunday's trip to FC Dallas (8 pm ET; FS1 in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada) is a huge test of this gambit, since literally no one in the league does as good a job of keeping the central defense tight to the central midfield as FCD.
I'll also be watching: Set pieces. NYCFC haven't been as vulnerable as last year, but they're still at a substantial disadvantage.
Three More Games:
Chicago vs. Seattle (Saturday, 9 pm ET; ESPN2 in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada): The Fire have been devastating in transition but do not create much from possession. That's maybe not fatal against a Seattle team that'll happily take 55 percent or more of the ball, but it's something to keep an eye on if you're trying to get a feel for the Fire's ceiling as a club. Right now I'm just about here:
To sum up.— Rob Lowe (@LoweDownStats) May 11, 2017
Fire show about average. Their offense has been scoring but on some lucky breaks. xG isn't that good. Def has been unlucky.
(that whole thread of tweets is worth the read)
Portland vs. Atlanta (Sunday, 4 pm ET; ESPN in the US | TSN2 in Canada): I've yet to be able to get a real feel for the Timbers. Right now they seem like a team with a lot of individual talents who can put together pretty stretches of play, but have only rarely put together full 90s on both sides of the ball. Atlanta, of course, feast upon anything disjointed.
That said, the Timbers should be expected to take the full three points at home against an expansion team.
New York vs. LA (Sunday, 6 pm ET; FS1 in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada): The Galaxy need to continue to simplify, which is what they did last weekend after Jelle Van Damme and Jermaine Jones came off. This feels, though, like a breakout game for Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is among the best in league history at finding space between the opposing center backs in open play. Every turnover by LA (and there will be many against that RBNY high press) is a chance to shoot that particular gap.
One more thing:
Happy weekending, everybody.