A look at the Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo ahead of their Western Conference finals matchup.
On one side of the MLS Western Conference finals, we have a team with a rock-solid spine that won the cup last year and were always favored to break through a weaker bracket. On the other, we have a team that just beat the No. 1 seed, a young and scrappy club with firepower up top and a defense that has put itself together.
Seattle are the former, and Houston are the latter. Sounders vs. Dynamo is the matchup; the first leg is Tuesday, Nov. 21 in Houston and the second is Nov. 30 in Seattle.
What to know about Seattle
How they got here: The conference’s No. 2 seed, the Sounders methodically dispatched a lethargic Vancouver team in the semifinals. They took an uninteresting 0-0 draw out of the first leg at BC Place before a second-half Clint Dempsey brace secured an aggregate Seattle victory. The Whitecaps showed little ability or willingness to push forward, making for boring games and lower-quality soccer. Seattle weren’t especially creative either.
How they play: You’ll see Nicolas Lodeiro get the ball a lot, especially in the offensive half. His touch percentage, or percentage of his team’s total touches while on the field, was third among players who logged 1,000-plus minutes in the regular season (per American Soccer Analysis), and he completed 300 more passes in the attacking third than anyone else in the league. That’s absurd, and it’s what he has been doing since he arrived last summer. Figuring out how to manage his patterns is the most important thing to consider when game-planning for Seattle.
Strengths: Lodeiro is the obvious strength.
But the Sounders have quietly become one of the league’s best defensive teams. On the back of a brick-wall center-back tandem (aerially-dominant veterans Roman Torres and Chad Marshall), two of MLS’ better full-backs (attacking renegade Joevin Jones and sturdy right-back signing Kelvin Leerdam) and a dynamic central midfield (Cristian Roldan and a newly-healthy Ozzie Alonso), they gave up just 39 goals in the regular season, third-least in MLS.
Roldan is a force as a No. 8, adding much-needed attacking variety and competent distribution all over the midfield. With Alonso back, he will be freed, and Seattle will have the most devastating ball-winning defensive midfielder in league history roaming behind their young dynamo.
One other thing to note: this is an important game, and Dempsey scores in important games.
Weaknesses: Their attack can be too predictable at times, as we saw against the Whitecaps. They can get too slow and meticulous, failing to turn possession into meaningful chances and relying too much on Lodeiro circulating the ball. If they create space, they create goals. If they don’t, we’re not in for a stimulating game.
The center-backs can be beaten for pace, and Jones can be caught on the overlap.
What to know about the Dynamo
How they got here: An Alberth Elis extra-time winner slipped them by Sporting KC at home in the knockout round, and then they went to Portland in the second leg of the semifinals and beat them 2-1, advancing by that score on aggregate. They aren’t the best team on paper and have been killed by injuries and absences, but they play hard and possess real difference-makers.
How they play: It’ll be a 4-3-3 from Wilmer Cabrera, with heavily-interchanging attackers and wide-sitting wingers. We saw them transition away from the 4-2-4 defensive formation they had established over the last two-thirds of the regular season against the Timbers, instead moving to something of a 4-3-2-1.
For a more in-depth analysis of that tactical switch, read this, but the short version is they let Tomas Martinez roam free as an inverted winger and moved Alex back to his natural No. 8 spot, which solidified the Dynamo even more defensively and helped them look more competent in possession, even on the road.
Strengths: Elis, Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas are speedy and dynamic attackers who know how to put the ball in the net. They probably won’t all get to start, but one or two of them will, and that gives Houston a truly explosive option in transition.
Juan David Cabezas and Eric Alexander were dominant in deep midfield against Portland, following Diego Valeri all over the field and locking down the large area in front of a backline that often sits deep. That backline was missing starters Leonardo, AJ DeLaGarza and DaMarcus Beasley, but it looked robust, anchored by error-free center-back Adolfo Machado. Backup left-back Dylan Remick, filling in for Beasley, scored the series-winning goal.
Elder statesman Vicente Sanchez (37) can light it up off the bench.
Weaknesses: Those injuries across the backline and absence in goal (Tyler Deric, October’s player of the month, is suspended) could come back to haunt them despite depth that rivals any in the league — although Remick, Philippe Senderos, Jalil Anibaba and backup keeper Joe Willis have been varying levels of good, it’s tough to make it all the way through MLS’ playoff gauntlet without four season-long starters.
While Cabrera’s constant squad rotation throughout the year has fostered great depth, the lack of obvious first-choice options could create uncertainty.
Houston. The way they beat Portland should translate well against a predictable Seattle team.