Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Dallas faces Houston, seeks to escape Western cellar
In some rivalries, the teams involved fight for a trophy. In others, bragging rights are sufficient reward for coming out on top. Leave it to two teams from Texas, then, to battle it out for the right to display a Civil War-era cannon in their stadium.
Forward Kenny Cooper has been FC Dallas' lone bright spot this season. (Victor Decolongon/GettyImages)
The teams in question are the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, and the cannon -- named El Capitán -- is the prize for the side that wins the regular-season series. Incredibly, Dallas has beaten the Dynamo just once in its history, yet managed to wrest the mountain howitzer away from Houston last year without winning a single game, as three draws saw FCD take the honor based on the away-goals tiebreaker. Yet in another way it was fitting, as the Dynamo aren't allowed to fire the cannon to celebrate home goals due to the terms of their lease at Robertson Stadium.This week, on ESPN's MLS Game of the Week (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and ESPN360), the two Texas sides will meet in Houston for the first of three matches this season. But with both teams currently residing in the bottom half of the Western Conference table, the three points available will be foremost on their list of priorities.
Five storylines to follow1. Dallas' woeful startHeading into the 2009 campaign, FCD wasn't considered a championship favorite by too many prognosticators, but few could have predicted the magnitude of the team's stumble out of the gate. Dallas has the fewest points in MLS, with its league-worst defense the primary culprit. And with nearly a quarter of the season already in the books, the mantra of "it's still early" no longer has the calming effect it did a month ago."A lot of our mistakes are just mental silliness, things you would never expect professional players to be doing," said coach Schellas Hyndman. 2. Houston's revival
For the third year running, the Dynamo struggled in the opening weeks, going 0-2-2 to begin the season. And with fewer international commitments on their calendar this year, the whispers that the two-time MLS champions were past their sell-by date began to grow louder. But Houston has responded with a two-game winning streak that has seen the team crawl back toward the middle of the conference standings, and coach Dominic Kinnear is convinced that his team is inching closer to peak form.
MLS Game of the Week
Dallas at Houston
Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
"I don't think we were playing badly before, although we weren't playing great," said Kinnear. "But now we're defending a little bit better, we're finishing our chances, and we're possessing the ball better. It's helpful too to play with a lead."
3. Changes afoot in DallasOftentimes you'll hear coaches try to squeeze positives out of even the most dispiriting performance. But Hyndman wasn't throwing out too many compliments following last week's 2-1 loss to D.C. United, as FCD was outplayed for the vast majority of the match. Dallas' back line looked soft in conceding two goals via passes through the heart of the defense, and the midfield struggled to possess the ball for any appreciable length of time. The performance has left Hyndman with little choice but to play amateur chemist and try to come up with a winning formula, and those changes likely won't be limited to the team's beleaguered defense."Our back line has been put under a lot of pressure because we're not winning balls in midfield," said Hyndman. "Then we're not putting pressure on [our opponents] and we're giving them opportunities to make good choices."
4. No such problems for the DynamoWith just five goals allowed in six matches, it's safe to say that Houston has been getting it done with defense. Bobby Boswell and second-year man Geoff Cameron have been solid in the middle, and goalkeeper Pat Onstad has been spectacular at times, including a vital penalty-kick save to preserve a 1-0 victory over Colorado on April 19. But against New England, Kinnear credited his midfield and forwards for helping to set the defensive tone in a 2-0 win.
"I wouldn't say it was easy for our back line, but it was easier for them because the two guys up front and the four in midfield were making the passing lanes somewhat predictable," said Kinnear. "When you get good pressure on the ball, it's easier to get tighter on people."
5. Hyndman on the hot seat
In the past, every time the Dallas managerial spot opened up, Hyndman was on the short list of candidates. FCD finally signed the former SMU head coach after canning Steve Morrow just over two months into last season, yet the results haven't been what they hoped. Dallas is just 5-10-9 since Hyndman signed on, but the FCD manager insists he isn't feeling any additional pressure."If you're worth anything as a coach, you're going to be evaluating yourself first," said Hyndman. "For us, winning one out of seven games, that's not enough, that's not where we want to be. But in five of the losses, three of those we could have won. So we're right there."
Five players to watch1. Stuart Holden, M, HoustonThe offseason departure of Dwayne De Rosario meant Holden had some massive shoes to fill in the center of Houston's midfield. And with the U.S. Olympian struggling at times, the task of quarterbacking the Dynamo offense has occasionally been handed to teammate Brad Davis. But in Sunday's win over New England, Holden appeared to be taking some baby steps toward taking on the responsibility full time. Granted, his goal came courtesy of a misplay by New England goalkeeper Matt Reis, but Kinnear was impressed with other parts of his play.
"Nothing came through the center of [New England's] midfield," said Kinnear. "That has to do with the amount of work Holden puts in off the ball on the defensive side. His goal, it's not a Goal of the Week candidate, but he got in the box a couple of times late and that's what we expect him to do."
2. Kenny Cooper, F, Dallas
Even as the team crumbles around him, Cooper has retained last year's scoring touch, with four goals in his first seven games. But lately Cooper has been deployed as a lone striker, and he hasn't been as effective as a result. With Hyndman promising to mix things up, it will be interesting to see if that includes bringing forward Jeff Cunningham -- who has been battling a right hamstring injury -- back into the lineup to take some of the load off Cooper.
3. Brian Ching, F, Houston
The U.S. international forward remains the focal point of Houston's attack; his physical presence and ability to hold the ball up provide the platform for the Dynamo to get forward. The Hawaiian remains lethal on set pieces, as well, as evidenced by his goal last weekend against New England.
4. Dave van den Bergh, M, Dallas
If Cooper is to see more of the ball, chances are van den Bergh will have to be one of his main suppliers. The Dutchman remains one of the best crossers of the ball in MLS, and his ability to link up with the team's forwards could play a huge role in the game's outcome. He'll go up against Houston's right-sided tandem of Richard Mulrooney and Brian Mullan, who are solid defensive players.
5. Brad Davis, M, Houston
The Dynamo depend on good flank play, and Davis' left-footed deliveries are a key part of their attack. Davis has struggled with injuries in the past, but this season he looks to be getting back to his best, and his pinpoint delivery on Ching's goal on Sunday helped clinch the game for Houston.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.