Say hello to the top team in MLS based on points per game.
The Houston Dynamo beat FC Dallas 2-1 on Saturday afternoon. The Dynamo move into third in the Western Conference, and first in points per game, given they have played two less matches than LAFC and the LA Galaxy. It’s been a phenomenal start to the season for a team that missed the playoffs in 2018 and few had higher than the bubble in preseason predictions.
What’s with the turnaround? The Dynamo have been making simple sexy again.
You won’t read a romantic poem about the way the Dynamo set up. On defense, it’s about working hard and limiting mistakes. They don’t have perfect defensive lines or angles, but the back six — the four defenders and the two defensive midfielders — work their tails off. The center midfielders — Boniek Garcia and Matias Vera — eat up as much ground as any in the league. They constantly get pressure on the ball and recover... get pressure on the ball and recover.
And then when they win the ball, they don’t overthink it: get the ball to the right players as quickly as possible. When those players — Alberth Elis, Tomas Martinez, Memo Rodriguez and Mauro Manotas — get an inch of space, they look toward goal. They don’t overplay to wait for the perfect moment. They attack with conviction and, at the moment, tons of confidence.
Wilmer Cabrera has a couple Audi R8s in Manotas and Elis and he doesn’t do anything that could hold them back.
The one bit tactical nuance I’ve noticed: They set up in a lopsided 4-3-3. Most teams play symmetrically from left to right, but the Dynamo add a wrench. Rodriguez tucks inside as an inverted winger on the left, with Adam Lundkvist playing on the touchline behind him. Elis, conversely, plays as a true winger on the right, and AJ DeLaGarza takes a more conservative approach to allow Elis his space. It adds an element of unfamiliarity while putting players in their ideal spots and creating balance left to right, front to back.
With all that said, there are three looming questions.
First, the Dynamo rely heavily on individual brilliance. They aren’t tricking teams with coordinated movements; they are asking players to read situations and beat the person across from them. Is that sustainable for 34 games? Haven’t we been down this road with Elis before? In both 2017 and 2018, he jumped into “how good is this guy!!” category and then hit a slump. Is Martinez a real star now? Can Boniek play like an All-Star for a full season at 34? I don’t feel great about saying “yes” to any of those, more less all of them.
On a similar note, will they be able to keep Elis and Manotas? Teams around the world are circling. Houston has already fended off offers for Elis. If a team comes in with a $10 million-plus offer in the summer transfer window, can the Dynamo say no?
Finally, the Dynamo have played six of their eight games at home. Most teams, both the good ones and the bad ones, do well in that kind of stretch. The inverse is that a stretch of home games means a looming stretch of road games. Open games generally don’t go as well on the road. But, as the old saying goes, you can only win the games in front of you and the Dynamo have won almost all of them. For it, they get to reign at the top for at least a week.