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NYCFC Tactics Time: How to Defeat the Houston Dynamo

Can the Blues snatch a win from today’s home match in Connecticut?

MLS: Desert Diamond Cup-New York City FC vs Houston Dynamo
James Sands (right) battles Dynamo midfielder Alex (left)
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

In retrospect, the Rapids match last Saturday had “trap game” written all over it. Being on the road, playing in that Colorado altitude, and sporting a squad without Alex Ring, Yangel Herrera, or a healthy David Villa make up the 3 of the key ingredients of a trap. The carrot on the end of the proverbial stick was a return to their fortress at Yankee Stadium. Due to a Yankees-Royals makeup game scheduled for Monday, however, today’s match was moved to Pratt & Whitney Stadium, home of the UConn Huskies.

Not only will Patrick Vieira and company play a “home game” several hours away from home, they will take on Houston Dynamo, a fast, high-scoring attack. Luckily for NYCFC, Houston have been hitting the skids lately, taking just 1 point from the last 4 games. Additionally, Ronald Matarrita, Ethan White, and Mikey Lopez are finally healthy.

They are a tough matchup for NYCFC, but have some holes in their game. Here’s how to expose the Dynamo.

  1. Line Up Like This

4-3-3: Johnson; Matarrita, Callens, Brillant, Allen; Ring; Moralez, McNamara; Wallace, Harrison; Villa

The return of David Villa to the starting XI is finally upon us. In his abscence, Patrick Vieira has tried all manner of things. He tried Sean Okoli in Villa’s place against Kansas City, Jack Harrison as a false nine vs. Portland, and Khiry Shelton up top vs. Colorado. The captain’s return signifies a return to normalcy; in this case, normalcy being scoring off of Villa’s trademark magic.

Finnish midfielder Alex Ring will likely be back after missing some time with an injury sustained on international duty. While he is still looking for MLS goal #1, his versatility in midfield was sorely missed.

With Yangel Herrera unable to go, I would strongly recommend keeping Andrea Pirlo on the bench. Pirlo’s lack of pace and defensive struggles (and I’m being very kind with those last few words) aren’t ideal against a fast, offensively-minded team like Houston. Moving Ring to a defensive mid position and putting Tommy McNamara at attacking mid might be a more beneficial setup.

Defensively, the back 4 should remain intact. The center back duo of Alex Callens and Frederic Brillant remains intact. Brillant’s performance in particular has stood out in the absence of Maxime Chanot and Ronald Matarrita. With the Costa Rican international Matarrita back from his injury, Ben Sweat will unfortunately return to the bench. RJ Allen impressed enough, in my opinion, to stave off Ethan White for the time being. Sean Johnson, of course, will stick in goal.

2. Dominate possession, slow the game down

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Manchester City likes to dominate time of possession, play out of the back, and run their attack through their highly skilled midfielders. In Patrick Vieira’s ideal system, it wouldn’t look too dissimilar. 60% possession or greater is a must if the squad wants the full 3 points.

Houston is a team more than happy to concede possession, as they play at a blistering pace, mostly wanting to utilize counter attacks, which they do as good as anyone. They currently rank 19th out of 22 teams in average time of possession, while New York City ranks 4th in that same category.

The onus is on the midfield to dictate the tempo of this game, which will need to be more slow and calculated than we are used to seeing from NYCFC. Don’t try to turn this into a track meet, with long balls and extended runs with the ball. Slow the game down, take your time, and build gradually to a goal. It might seem alien as compared to how NYCFC normally plays, but Houston preys on teams being overaggressive and then promptly counterattacking.

3. Be wary of Houston’s wingbacks

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

A former right back himself, Dynamo manager Wilmer Cabrera understands the importance of a left or right back who can contribute an equal amount on the offensive end as the defensive end. At their best, Houston’s defenders look straight out of an instructional video on how to correctly play wing back. The ageless DaMarcus Beasley has resurrected his career and is now starring as both a left back and left midfielder. While not offensively minded, AJ DeLaGarza has shown a knack for getting forward. Players like Alex, Cubo Torres, and Andrew Wenger get the attention, but the Houston attack starts at the wings.

Houston is currently tied for 6th in MLS in time of possession coming from the left side, and is also tied for 5th in T.O.P from the right side, clocking in at 38% and 39%, respectively. For comparison, Dynamo have the second-lowest percentage of T.O.P in the middle in all of MLS, ahead of only the geographically-confused team from New Jersey. Almost every Cubo Torres goal and every brilliant set piece starts from out wide. Clamping down on that and forcing Houston to go right through the teeth of the NYCFC defense is the best way to blunt their very sharp attack.

4. Defend set pieces like your life depends on it

MLS: FC Dallas at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Alberth Elis, Dynamo’s 21 year old Honduran midfielder, is 2nd in MLS with 4 goals off set pieces, trailing only Sebastian Giovinco. Houston have scored a total of 14 goals off of set piece, firmly in the top 5. What they lack in a marquee name with supposed free kick proficiency (**cough** Pirlo **cough), they more than make up for in efficiency.

Though NYCFC haven’t given up too many set piece goals, they have shown a recent propensity to commit fouls in dangerous areas of their own half. The laws of probability dictate that some of these set piece shots will beat Sean Johnson eventually. Part of Houston’s reckless, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to attacking soccer involves trying to draw fouls in these areas. Elis has a knack for scoring on set piece chances, as does Andrew Wenger. NYCFC have to be on their A-game should a free kick or corner come about.