Dynamo simply no match for Gamba
It's a good thing that, unlike tennis, soccer doesn't normally penalize players for audible obscenities. Otherwise Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad -- and many of his teammates -- would have been ejected long before the conclusion of Saturday's Pan-Pacific Championship final, which ended with Gamba Osaka thumping the reigning MLS champs by the eye-popping score of 6-1.
Onstad certainly had every reason to be dropping F-bombs, considering how comprehensive Osaka's victory was. It's not an exaggeration to say that with a little more luck, the inaugural winners of the tournament could have reached double figures against the Dynamo. Osaka hit the woodwork no fewer than three times, and Onstad actually made several sharp saves that only served to reduce -- however so slightly -- the considerable damage that was inflicted. That Osaka actually trailed in the match after Ricardo Clark's 11th-minute goal was a fact rendered to footnote status by the way it tore Houston apart.
So the question that immediately comes to mind is: Was Osaka that good or was Houston that bad? (And by extension are the Los Angeles Galaxy a wee bit better than everyone originally thought?) As is usually the case with these things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. What's clear is that Houston had no answer for the power, pace, and finishing ability of Gamba Osaka striker Baré, who lit up the Dynamo for four goals and looked like he could step immediately into the starting lineup of any MLS side.
Simply put, Baré is a matchup nightmare. Big defenders like Patrick Ianni and Bobby Boswell were left in the dust. Quicker players like Wade Barrett were simply overpowered. There are some forwards in MLS with two of Baré's aforementioned attributes, but with the possible exceptions of Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore there aren't any with all three.
Of course, Baré didn't' score his goals all by himself. Someone had to be setting up his opportunities, and the time and space afforded Osaka's midfield was where the Dynamo really fell short. With the J-League side several weeks ahead of Houston in its preseason program, the extra yard or two of pace needed to close down people in midfield, win second balls and stay with runners was missing from the Dynamo's game. This difference in sharpness was especially evident early in the second half, when Houston trailed by just a goal, and looked poised to net an equalizer. But in the process, the Dynamo began taking some risks. That allowed Osaka's superior fitness, speed, and technical ability to come to the fore, and ruthlessly punish Houston on the counterattack, blitzing the Dynamo for four goals in a 17-minute span.
Some will point to the fact that Houston was without midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, whose attacking verve and work rate were certainly missed. And it can be argued that defender Eddie Robinson was an even bigger loss; perhaps his physical play and underrated pace would have at least stemmed the tide better than either Ianni or Boswell.
But when you consider that Osaka was missing seven regulars to a variety of international commitments, the difference in quality and depth between the two sides becomes sobering -- especially given that in the back and in midfield, Houston is one of MLS' deeper teams.
Head coach Dominic Kinnear joked afterward that the defeat was "the worst of my life." But in spite of the caning Houston suffered, the long-term implications of the defeat will probably be minimal. Osaka may have even done the Dynamo a favor by exposing their weaknesses at such a stage, giving Kinnear plenty of time to address his team's failings ahead of next month's CONCACAF Champions Cup matches.
That's not to say that Kinnear doesn't have anything to worry about. The play of center backs Ianni and Boswell as well as the rather anonymous performances by Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski will certainly give him pause. But these are preseason obstacles with which Kinnear is well-versed.
The irony of course is that of the tournament's two MLS entrants, the Galaxy will probably leave Hawaii feeling better about themselves than the Dynamo, courtesy of their 2-1 victory over Sydney FC. Granted, L.A. owed its triumph in part to some stellar play by goalkeepers Steve Cronin and Josh Wicks. And the Galaxy's opponent in the Sydney goal, Ivan Necevski, did his bit by spilling a David Beckham cross right to the feet of a grateful Josh Tudela, who slotted home the winning goal just before halftime.
But head coach Ruud Gullit continued giving his youngsters significant minutes, and a 4-0 "reserve" match victory against Houston on Friday allowed him to spread some playing time to the other members of his team, most notably forward Carlos Ruiz. (A fact that must have had the tournament organizers shaking their heads a bit.)
With Osaka's victory over Houston putting L.A.'s own defeat to the tournament champions in perspective, Gullit can rightly feel pleased about his side's time in Hawaii. As for the Dutchman himself dropping some F-bombs, the use of that motivational tactic can wait for another day.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.