Houston’s Problem Lies In Spurning Chances

Written by Ian Thomson

New York Red Bulls’ makeshift defense posted its third shutout in 12 days Wednesday to move into second place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.

Head Coach Hans Backe’s back line, including rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara, took to the field against Houston Dynamo at Red Bull Arena with just 40 MLS appearances between them. They fought tenaciously to hold on for a third straight 1-0 win after Corey Ashe’s early blunder led to Kenny Cooper’s eighth goal of the season.

Houston’s winless streak extended to five games as Dominic Kinnear’s team ended their seven-game road stretch with a frustrating, self-inflicted defeat.

Approach

Backe, still missing the injured Thierry Henry, Wilman Conde, Teemu Tainio and Stephen Keel, kept faith with the 11 players who beat Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 at Home Depot Center last Saturday. Mehdi Ballouchy pushed into a more advanced role in support of lone striker Cooper.

New York's defense remained depleted while Ballouchy pushed forward to support Cooper

Kinnear made four changes from Houston’s last outing, a 3-2 loss at D.C. United on April 28, with one eye on Saturday’s opening game at BBVA Compass Stadium. Captain Brian Ching was rested and top scorer Will Bruin started as a substitute. Cam Weaver and former Red Bull Macoumba Kandji received their first starts of the season.

Ashe dropped to left-back to counter Dane Richards’ pace and Brad Davis returned to left-midfield after his calf injury. Jermaine Taylor and Calen Carr started on Houston’s right with Andre Hainault and Je-Vaughn Watson dropping to the bench.

Dominic Kinnear altered Houston's front pair with Saturday's home opener to consider

The First Rule Of Pass Backs

One of the first things defenders learn is to aim wide of the post when passing back to the goalkeeper. Houston fell behind on seven minutes after Ashe breached this rule. It didn’t help that his intended pass to Tally Hall was woefully lacking pace. Cooper’s presence forced Hall into a tackle rather than a clearance, and the ball rebounded into the net off the burly striker.

Ashe's short back pass toward goal allowed Cooper (circled) to close down hall for New York's goal

New York almost doubled their lead on 13 minutes with a set-piece routine that they’ve executed a few times this season. They flood the back post while one runner peels off to receive the ball low at the front post or edge of the box. This time it was Joel Lindpere spinning away from Carr to meet Ballouchy’s cross. The Estonian side-stepped Davis, but couldn’t find the far corner with his shot on the turn.

Houston held the upper hand thereafter. Weaver forced Meara into his first save on 14 minutes when Jan Gunnar Solli’s ball-watching allowed the striker to reach Bobby Boswell’s cross. The 28-year-old couldn’t direct his effort away from Meara.

The Red Bulls’ inexperienced defense almost gifted the visitors an equalizer on 16 minutes. Tyler Ruthven switched off as Meara passed the ball to him and Kandji stole in to intercept. The Senegalese forward’s heavy touch fortuitously rolled back into Meara’s arms.

McCarty, Meara Step Up As Houston Target New York’s Left Side

The Dynamo focused their attacks down the right wing, seeking to expose rookie Connor Lade, former Atlanta Silverbacks defender Ruthven and the out-of-position Solli. Carr weaved past Lade on 28 minutes, but Dax McCarty dropped to the edge of New York’s 6-yard box to head clear. The deep-lying midfielder was soon mopping up from the other side of the penalty box after Kandji waltzed around Markus Holgersson.

McCarty's heat map shows his screening of the Red Bulls' defense (Source: MLSSoccer.com)

McCarty carries the misfortune of being inextricably linked with Dwayne De Rosario, one of MLS’ best ever players, following last year’s trade between the Red Bulls and D.C. United. The scrappy Floridian is finally beginning to show his qualities this season, particularly in the past few weeks without Rafael Marquez to undermine his work. Marquez was available Wednesday following his latest three-game suspension. The Mexican looked on from an executive suite high in the stands nursing a left ankle injury, according to the Red Bulls.

Houston were beginning to pepper New York’s penalty area with crosses. The Red Bulls second-string defense, superbly organized by the vocal Meara, held on stubbornly as McCarty and Brandon Barklage bravely hurled themselves at every cross ball. They received a lucky break on 37 minutes though when Ruthven raised his arm toward the ball to clear from Kandji. Debutant referee Sorin Stoica allowed play to continue.

Second-Half Changes

Backe introduced teenage striker Juan Agudelo at half-time for Ballouchy. The Moroccan habitually surrendered New York’s dwindling possession toward the interval with his poor touch and dreadful passing. Kinnear made a couple of early changes after the break – Alex Dixon and Bruin replacing the ineffectual Luiz Camargo and Weaver.

Agudelo finally registered New York’s first shot on goal on 65 minutes after another defensive lapse from Houston. Geoff Cameron appeared to have snuffed out any threat with an interception on the edge of his own penalty area and he showed typical composure to find Adam Moffat in midfield. The Scot immediately gave the ball away to Richards, who teed up Agudelo 20 yards from goal. Hall dived to his left to beat the ball out for New York’s first corner.

Colin Clark replaced Kandji on 73 minutes as Kinnear sought a cutting edge to Houston’s dominance. Kandji and Weaver had both looked rusty and they struggled to link up with the midfield.

Davis then had a couple of chances to equalize. Ruthven miscued Clark’s cross to Davis on 81 minutes, but last year’s MLS MVP runner-up couldn’t find the target with his weaker right foot as he swiveled.

Ashe found Davis’ deadly left foot a minute later with a cutback to the edge of the box. Lade did just enough to force the former MetroStar to fire his shot inches away from a helpless Meara’s net.

Agudelo’s spectacular volley from Barklage’s deep cross forced Hall into only his second save of the night, and Moffat blasted a 30-yard volley within a whisker of Meara’s top corner as the game became ragged.

Houston’s best move of the night should have produced the leveler on 88 minutes. Carr fed Bruin down the right side and the Generation Adidas forward supplied a perfect cross to the back post that split three Red Bulls defenders. Davis launched himself toward the ball, but planted his header wide of Meara’s back post from eight yards.

Taylor almost repeated Ashe’s folly with a near-identical back pass that forced Hall into a rushed clearance under pressure from late substitute Roy Miller. The ball fortuitously broke back into the goalkeeper’s arms this time, leaving the Dynamo with five minutes of injury time to salvage a deserved point.

Davis overlapped Ashe in the third minute of stoppages and floated a beautiful cross to the back post for Carr to contest. The former Chicago Fire midfielder headed firmly on target, but too close to Meara who made an outstanding reflex save to protect his third successive clean sheet.

Conclusion

Houston’s record against the Red Bulls is surprisingly poor given their success in the past six years. They’ve yet to win in New Jersey and haven’t beaten New York at all since May 2008.

Kinnear blunted his side’s chances of breaking those runs with his changes in attack, but Houston still did enough to earn at least a tie. The Dynamo swung 35 crosses into Meara’s penalty area only to be repelled by a combination of stout defending and slack finishing.

New York’s injury crisis might turn out to be a blessing for Backe, who is finding that he can trust his less-heralded squad players.