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Counterintuitive: The Transition Style that got the Houston Dynamo Back to the MLS Cup Playoffs

By: Kevin Chroust

STATS Playing Styles can quantitatively break down the counter attack that helped transform a last-place club into an MLS semifinalist under a first-year coach. And while Houston won’t be an underdog in 2018, playing like one still makes sense.

Calling the Houston Dynamo a playoff mainstay for their first eight seasons after moving from San Jose might be underselling their initial accomplishments. Half of those campaigns resulted in MLS Cup final appearances, and half of those ended in celebration. That changed in 2014, but after a three-year absence, the Dynamo returned to the postseason in 2017 under first-year coach Wilmer Cabrera.

It was an impressive turnaround for a club that posted a franchise-worst one point per match just a season before. The forgettable nature of 2016 went beyond results. It was also unmemorable in terms of style. There wasn’t anything distinguishing the Dynamo from the league, while in 2017 they excelled at 44 percent above the league average in the ever-dangerous area of counter attacking. The only other club in that neighborhood was Portland (plus-32), while New England (+17) and Salt Lake (+17) were the only other sides higher than +10 percent.

Before analyzing the good, let’s rewind for a moment and consider post-All-Star break 2016, a 14-match stretch two months removed from the club’s midseason coaching change to interim boss Wade Barrett on May 28. Houston gathered 15 points with a minus-3 goal difference in that span:

Houston’s 2017 playing styles measured against MLS averages (0%). (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

The Dynamo were slightly above league averages in possession-based styles such as build up and sustained threat, but they were far from a ball-dominant side. They didn’t make up for that anywhere else – they didn’t employ a high press or have a particular proficiency with crossing, and their counter was middling.

It resulted in 71 possessions on which counter attacking accounted for more than 50 percent of the value, 23 shots and three goals – or 5.1 possessions, 1.6 shots and 0.2 goals per game.

Under Cabrera, Houston scored 18 more goals than 2016. Its 57 goals for trailed only Portland in the Western Conference, while it conceded exactly the same as 2016 (45).

This scoring, seemingly counterintuitively, coincided with the departure of Will Bruin, who went on to star with MLS runner-up Seattle. But it had less to do with one individual than an impressive collective counter attack. To name a few, Alex’s midfield influence changed, Erick Torres and Mauro Manotas took on larger roles, and Alberth Elis was brought in.

We’ll get back to individuals. First, the more basic team deviations.

Notice the changes in style for the entirety of the 2017 campaign from their 2-1 home win against Seattle on March 4 through the Western Conference finals:

This translates to 278 counter-attack possessions, 90 shots and 11 goals – or 7.1, 2.3 and 0.3 per match.

Houston’s 11 goals scored off the counter matched Real Salt Lake for second and trailed only New England (14). These goals led to success with the Dynamo going 7-1-2 when scoring on at least one counter attack. In matches with more than three counter-attack shots, they were 8-0-3.

But what might be even more fascinating to consider is that, for the Dynamo, it wasn’t all about counter-attack chances and goals. Their results came when the style itself was at least present. When generating fewer than seven counter-attack possessions, Houston was 3-10-4 (0.76 team points per match). With seven or more, it was 12-2-8 (2.0 points per match).

Let’s now highlight an individual role that helped implement this style under Cabrera.

Begin with traditional individual statistics for carryover players from Houston’s 2016 side, and you’ll see Alex finished 2017 with 11 assists. That tied for 12th in MLS, but it came after managing a total of four in his previous six MLS seasons. Something was up, and part of that something was transitional responsibility in the midfield.

Dig deeper into counter-attack distances covered, and you’ll see Alex’s highest levels of offensive contribution came in the counter. Broken down to consider only the team’s play when Alex was on the field, he accounted for 20 percent of Houston’s counter distance passed, which ranked highest in output among Dynamo regulars. He was also at 20 percent in counter distance dribbled, which trailed only Elis (34) and Romell Quioto (22). Remember, these are on-pitch contributions, so Elis did not account for 34 percent of the club’s counter dribbling for the entire season but rather 34 percent of that distance covered during his 2,036 minutes played.

Now consider Alex’s 2016 numbers. He accounted for 19 percent of the counter dribble, so there was actually very little proportional deviation. But his counter passing on-pitch contribution was a mere six percent in 2016, and that was for a club that countered as a whole far less. At 20 percent in 2017 for a side that countered far more, we begin to see a specific style of play in which opportunity for a drastic increase in assists opened up for the midfielder.

This is the style and individual play that got the Dynamo back into the postseason, and it’s the style that allowed them to progress to the conference finals. Consider their playing styles for their first three playoff matches against Kansas City and Portland:

The Dynamo played an even more compact style than they did in the regular season, and it resulted in an even higher propensity to counter. On the counter in those three matches: 32 possessions, seven shots and a goal. Not just any goal – a rather important one that got Houston past Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in the knockout round after a Juan Cabezas defensive-half regain and outlet pass to Vicente Sanchez on the right side. He carried the ball to the end line and crossed to Elis for the extra-time winner.

But what was almost ubiquitous in the regular season was ephemeral in the postseason. That style wasn’t present once a trip to the MLS Cup was on the line. Consider Houston’s styles for its last-four tie with Seattle, which ended in a 5-0 aggregate defeat:

The Dynamo held the ball more in their own half, and nothing came from it. On the counter: four possessions, one shot, no goals.

This came after two regular-season matches against the Sounders in which Houston played its compact game and broke out when it saw opportunity – +27 of league average in the counter, +20 in direct play and +6 high press with little possession to speak of in maintenance (-39), build up (-57), sustained threat (-30) or fast tempo (-55). The West foes split six points at a 2-2 aggregate.

When Houston opens the 2018 season on March 3 against Atlanta, it’s no longer going to have the underdog label it did entering last season – a label that often goes along with a compact, counter-attacking style. Cabrera recognizes this:

“There are players and teams that like not being the favorites and when they become the favorites, they falter,” he told the club’s official website earlier this month. “We need to measure ourselves because if they’re going to call us favorites, we have to prepare ourselves to deal with that pressure and with the weight of what it means to be the favorite in a match.”

Labels don’t mean much on their own, but we all know a favorite typically displays ball-dominant tactics. Stylistically, the Dynamo might want to take a counterintuitive approach.