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Three Questions: Houston Dynamo look to recapture status as one of MLS' best clubs

Waking the Red checked in with Dynamo Theory ahead of Friday night’s match.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Houston Dynamo
Wilmer Cabrera, the man behind the resurgent Dynamo
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of Friday night’s Toronto FC match against the Houston Dynamo, we exchanged questions with Derek Towers of SB Nation sister-site Dynamo Theory, which covers all things Houston. He talks turnaround, home-away splits and learning to deal with a lack of success from a team that has had so much.

1. Having languished at the bottom of the West, nearing irrelevancy, over the past few seasons, from a distance it appears as though Houston has really turned it around this year. To what or whom should the credit for this massive swing from one year to the next be given and how important has Wilmer Cabrera been to reigniting the Dynamo?

I think the front office learned from the Owen Coyle experiment. When he came in as the new coach, the front office branded the team ‘Dynamo 2.0’, signalling the official end to the Dominic Kinnear era – our former head coach who had taken our club to four MLS Cup finals and two wins. We saw a few changes to the team with Coyle, but nothing big enough to really pull us into the playoff picture.

After Wilmer Cabrera took the reins this offseason, we saw sweeping changes. Many players that had been big parts of the organization were traded, left exposed in the expansion and re-entry drafts or didn’t have their options picked up. The team then made several signings that would help Cabrera play the style of soccer that he wanted to – this was something that did not happen under Coyle.

As far as players contributing to the massive swing from last season, it starts with our attackers. Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres is playing his best soccer since his time at Chivas USA, where he was coached by Cabrera. Cabrera has made sure to make Cubo the focal point, and Cubo has responded brilliantly.

Last season he did not look invested in playing and he lost favour to the younger Mauro Manotas. This season he has bought into what Cabrera says, lost some weight and all parts of his game as a forward look improved. Alongside him are two new players in Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. Both are speedy dribblers and have scored a lot of goals together with Cubo already. These moves, as a result of lessons learned, are the reason we’re in third place in the Western Conference.

2. Given the strength of the Dynamo through this early portion of the season, the discrepancy in results depending on whether the game is played in Houston or away is striking. There is no shame in losing in Portland, though it was a bit of a thrashing, but New England? Seriously? Admittedly, it is a rather small sample size, but in general what accounts for the vast disparity between results at home and on the road?

I can’t fully explain it, because there aren’t a lot of games to compare to, but I think the answer is unique to each of those games. In Portland, we decided to park the bus the entire second half. Portland is a possession-based team with talented attackers and playmakers and is way too good to try that on, especially for 45 minutes. After they took the lead, we tried to get back in it and attack, but they sat in and possessed from the back. Managing games has been a weakness of Cabrera’s and something he is adjusting to.

In New England, the Revs countered our strengths and capitalized on our weaknesses. For most of the year the Dynamo utilized a 4-3-3 system that relied on quick counter-attacks. We could make a defensive stop and within seconds be in on goal. It sounds great, but it isn’t practical against some teams and doesn’t work for 90 minutes (a managing games issue). What makes the counter-attack effective is our forwards don’t get back to support the defence too often, so they’re ready to spring a counter. The forwards also pressure defenders and midfielders in the hope of an errant pass or a steal. New England one upped us at our own game by essentially eliminating build-up play through the midfield. They went straight to their forwards and since our defenders had less support, it worked.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a home vs. away issue, though, as we basically did both of those things in the second half against Minnesota United in a 2-2 draw that every Dynamo fan will admit felt like a loss. After that game Cabrera opted for a diamond 4-4-2 against San Jose and he noticed the benefits of having more players in the midfield, using a central attacking midfielder that can get into attacking positions. It’s a system that balances the attacking mentality of the 4-3-3 with the defensive support needed to see out games. The move showed growth as a coach for Cabrera and that he has a few tricks up his sleeve when needed.

3. Please forgive if this comes off a little unnecessarily harsh, but the Dynamo was a club that had tasted (almost) nothing but success through the first eight seasons following the move to Houston, whereas long-suffering Toronto fans had to wait nearly a decade before their first hint of glory. In that light, how have three successive seasons of underwhelming performances and missing the playoffs worn on the fan base? And what are the expectations for the side this year?

This may be one of the best questions I’ve had doing these question-exchange pieces, and I’ve been doing them for a while now. I think that our early success - (mostly) due to a team changing cities rather than being a newcomer to the league - spoiled Dynamo fans so much so that we associate the club with winning. That makes each of those three seasons where we didn’t make the playoffs hurt a lot more than it might for some other clubs. We had a higher place to fall from and the experience of losing has resulted in a range of emotions: bitterness, anger, humility, depression, anger again and sadness. It sucks. We can’t win the MLS Cup every year, but we expected to be in the conversation. As soon as that conversation shifted away from us competing for the Cup and to simply making the playoffs, reality really kicked in and we crashed back down to Earth.

Our NFL franchise, the Houston Texans, is an example of a team that every year fans have high hopes for. Every year. Each time I hear the same song, ‘this year is our year’. Each time it isn’t, though, as we find a way to muck it up. Dynamo fans are a little more pragmatic than that, but there are plenty of optimists that believe and there is some truth in their reasoning. Major League Soccer is a league with a lot of parity. One year you can do well and the next you could stink out loud, and vice versa. There are also plenty of skeptics that see that we haven’t changed enough to grow in this league. Even during the latter part of the Kinnear years, many people were critical as they argued that we were an ageing team destined to underachieve. They were right. It’s good to have a healthy mix of opinions while remaining loyal to your club.

This year, expectations are generally pretty high. Not necessarily that we’ll win the MLS Cup, but that we’ll make the playoffs. Cabrera is a coach familiar with the league, and we made lots of changes. That’s what a club needs to do if the old formula wasn’t working.

Lineup?

Diamond 4-4-2 (left to right): Joe Willis; DaMarcus Beasley, Leonardo, Adolfo Machado, A. J. DeLaGarza; Eric Alexander, Juan David Cabezas (CDM), Alex Lima (CAM), Oscar Boniek Garcia; Erick Torres, Alberth Elis.

Prediction?

2-2. I think the Dynamo have grown enough to earn a road point and we have done relatively well in recent years at BMO, but I think we sit in a little and invite the Reds back into the game.

Many thanks to Derek for taking the time to provide his insight on the Dynamo – he can be found on Twitter @dStowers410. And be sure to check out Dynamo Theory for all the latest on the goings on in Houston – they're on Twitter @dynamotheory.

WTR's responses to their questions can be found here.