Three keys: Sounders look to keep climbing vs Houston Dynamo

Aug 23, 2016, 1:42 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2016, 11:25 am
The first two matches between the Sounders and Dynamo in 2016 resulted in draws. (AP)...
The first two matches between the Sounders and Dynamo in 2016 resulted in draws. (AP)

The Sounders head to Houston for their second of three matches within the span of a week, and they’ll be riding high after their big win over the Timbers last Sunday. But traveling to and playing in Houston is no easy feat. Seattle’s last trip to southeast Texas ended in a 1-1 draw that saw its defense sliced open for the Dynamo’s goal, while Sounders center back Chad Marshall scored the dramatic equalizer to snatch a single point.

On a four-game unbeaten streak for the first time this season, the Sounders’ massive turnaround shows that they’re a very different team from the one that visited Houston in April. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Sounders are up a spot from ninth place, passing Cascadia rival Vancouver on the way up. Seattle has 30 points at the moment, just two off from the Timbers and the playoff positions.

Houston wasn’t particularly good or bad in April’s matchup, possibly due in part to how poor the Sounders were playing at the time. But the Dynamo’s season as a whole has been an objective failure. They currently sit at the bottom of the Western Conference with 24 points and a 5-10-9 record.

Houston “parted ways” with head coach Owen Coyle in May and promoted longtime assistant (and former player) Wade Barrett to interim head coach for the rest of the season. Sound like a familiar situation? The tenures of Barrett and Sounders interim coach Brian Schmetzer couldn’t be more different, though. Whereas the best that can be said about Barrett is that he’s sort of righted the Dynamo’s sinking ship with a 2-3-7 record since taking over, Schmetzer is unbeaten with a 3-0-1 record since taking the Sounders’ helm. He’s potentially pushing the Sounders to the playoff spots, while Barrett hasn’t been able to get Houston off the bottom of the table.

Here are three keys for Wednesday’s match, which you can hear at 6 p.m. on AM 770 KTTH:

1. Schmetzer will rotate his squad, but how much?

With this week being the definition of “fixture congestion,” Schmetzer has probably the first selection headache of his short tenure. Not only do the Sounders play again in Portland on Sunday, they’re also playing in sticky, humid southeast Texas just two days after a long flight, with another flight home the day after. But considering where the Sounders are in relation to the MLS Cup playoffs, no match can be taken lightly. Between this match and Sunday’s, the Sounders must absolutely take four points, minimum. Ideally, they’d win both and get six points. But you need your best players against the Timbers, who, despite the result last Sunday, still played dangerous on the counter attack. I think that Schmetzer will rotate one of his center backs in; if Roman Torres is still unavailable (as of Tuesday he is not off the disabled list), it could be Zach Scott. I expect Flaco Fernandez to make his first start in his second stint with the club, probably in for Andreas Ivanschitz. Erik Friberg could also come in, and I only expect one of Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris to start in this match.

2. The Sounders’ new set-piece philosophy could pay off again.

I said before Sunday’s match that I expected set pieces to play a big part in the match for either side. That turned out to be fairly true, as the Sounders scored two – Dempsey’s penalty, and Cristian Roldan’s header from a corner kick. This is, a bit ironically, kind of new for the Sounders this season. Despite having some of the most corner-kick opportunities in all of MLS, they sit below the league average in goals from set pieces. But Schmetzer has clearly changed the team’s philosophy regarding corners. Under Sigi Schmid, it looked like the Sounders relied on having Ivanschitz just blast the ball somewhere near the box and hope someone got a header on it. Roldan’s goal on Sunday was clearly a designed play straight from the training ground. Brad Evans’ flick was brilliantly executed from Nicolas Lodeiro’s short corner, and an unmarked Roldan jumped right onto the misdirected ball and headed it into the net from close range. The Sounders could find more success if they continue to try new things like that, especially against a leaky defense like Houston’s.

3. Watch for long shots from the Dynamo.

For all of the Dynamo’s woes, they are curiously at the very top of one specific stat table: goals from outside the box. With seven goals on the season from that area, the Dynamo have a number of players who can really thump it in from long range. Veteran midfielder Ricardo Clark has two in 2016, in my mind cementing himself as something of a poor man’s Jermaine Jones at times. He’s not particularly quick, so he shouldn’t be hard to mark, but failing to do so could certainly burn the Sounders. The heat and humidity will tire both teams out quickly, and the Sounders mustn’t get lazy on either side of the ball if they hope to make it out of Houston with a point (or three).

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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Three keys: Sounders look to keep climbing vs Houston Dynamo