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Defending champions pose a formidable challenge for San Jose

The Houston Dynamo's name really should have remained "1836."  The logo would have looked an old locomotive which is how the team plays, not only in matches but throughout the MLS season.  The league does no favors for the champions, having them play pre season tournaments when I am sure Dominic Kinnear would have preferred to stay close to home and sort things out for the season.  Like that locomotive, the Dynamo start slow, (Quakes '05 anyone?), build momentum, and then when the pieces are in place, they become more than difficult to beat.  With two wins in a row, the last in Chicago — a very difficult place to get a result — the Houston group has got to feel as though the early season blues are history.
In my first column I wrote that over-emphasizing an opponent can be a mistake. I still feel that way but in all honesty, the Earthquakes side offers little to write positively about, so I am going to spend a little more time on the opponent before we come back to San Jose.

Houston provides quality in every position. Onstad remains one of the best; maybe his style doesn't suit everyone, but he has a closet full of silverware in what has always been a team game.  Wade Barrett is the best professional in Major League Soccer. He leads by example, is always the fittest, and never speaks an ill word. He's a coach's dream player.  Goals don't come from his side often. (Here's a little secret: he's really not left footed!)

Eddie Robinson is the center back every forward in the league loses sleep over.  He is in my first eleven, best in the league.  Eddie's passing wasn't first rate when he came up — it was more a matter of making one poor pass in the ninety minutes than missing all the time.  The one gaffe was always a doozie though.  Boswell joins him in the middle and has his critics but will continue to evolve into a great partner for Eddie.  Richard Mulrooney occupies the right back position, which in reality makes the Dynamo back line stronger than last year's team.

In the middle Houston has the best tandem in the league. Rico Clark is perhaps the best defensive mid and who can make a case that Dwayne is not the most dangerous attacking midfielder in MLS?  When Landon is in the spot maybe, but no one else compares. Rico covers a lot of ground, makes sublime tackles and, while he doesn't shoot much, is not afraid to and at times gets positive results from doing so.  Dwayne DeRosario, when inspired, can be incredible.  He is the only player in the league that can actually turn a switch from what seemed a lackluster night, and provide the magic that garners three points.

Brian Mullan doesn't do anything really, really well.  I should rephrase that; he doesn't seem to do anything really well, but when he crosses the ball a teamate gets on the end, when he shoots it seems to go in.  What he does provide is an incredible work rate, just chews the knee caps off opponents.  Stuart Holden has done more than well in replacing the injured Brad Davis.  Stuart is a great young talent and next year when changes are forced on a team, Dominic may move one or two of the big guns and keep this guy.

Up top, Carracio and Brian Ching.  Brian buys the real estate and does it as well as anyone in MLS. His job is to keep crashing through the back four, knocking the ball down, sometimes continuing it, allowing teammates to run on.  Paired with a dynamic 'underneath' forward he is lethal. In the last two seasons the Dynamo have not had the right pairing — Moreno was too similar and Dalglish didn't have the legs.  Carracio is supposed to be the answer but I haven't seen it yet.  This forces Dwayne to play a little higher, which can be good or bad depending on which end the ball is in! In addition, watch how Brian Ching pressures the SJ back four.  He does a great job forcing the play and allowing the rest of his teamates to know where the ball is headed.  They quickly mark up and usually win the third pass.

On to San Jose.  The Quakes seemed to start the last match against New England in a more defensive posture with Corrales and Vide sharing the holding midfielder role. I think this is a positive move; however, this set up does have its down side if one can't get forward through the wide players.  Bob Bradley toys with this set up and has little success because the players in the middle fail to keep the ball and distribute properly, and the wide guys he picks hate it out there.  I watched one match with Landon and Rolfe as the wide guys! They hate it out there!  Anyway, Ronnie O'Brien is content playing in front of the opposition and Ivan Guerrero has never been the type of player that gets behind the defense.  The net result is that you end up playing side to side with little penetration.

If Kamara can do a better job running early into space and holding the ball up, the Quakes can get forward and join him.  Kei is actually the kind of player that could frustrate Houston because he doesn't seem to play right.  Kind of fast,  and lacking a good first touch makes him sort of unpredictable.  The ball bounces into areas no one expected — including him!  I still like Salinas starting wide in the hopes that he can occupy Barrett and pull Holden back and out of the attack. Hopefully the San Jose staff keeps Ramiro from trying to do too much. He shouldn't be looking to be the hero, trying to get forward and score.  Just sit in front of the back four and wait for the chance to break on a counter.

Denton is going to be busy because Kinnear will tell Mullan to run at him for 90 minutes.  Dominic will also force the ball over to Riley's side in the hopes of gaining possession through a bad pass.  Watch for Houston to play 'in to out', meaning they will look to find Brian Ching, he holds it up, drops it off, and the next pass goes wide.  Brian then looks to get into the box with Dwayne joining late for the forthcoming cross.  The Earthquakes' back four will have to make sure they do not ball watch and every time the ball moves from one area to another, the back line has to 're-find' their marks.

This match feels a lot like the Columbus one to me.  The Crew had a bunch of talent played a similar brand of  football, but the Quakes held their own early.  If San Jose can sit in, understanding they are outmatched talent wise, keep the ball a little and frustrate Houston, they can stay in the match. Maybe get one via a set piece, and then defend like crazy.  At some point the Earthquakes need to get over the delusions of grandeur thing as I call it, and realize that a workmanlike 1-0 result is as good as they can expect.

My keys to get a result:
Shape in defense. Four in back with two sitting in front of them, always.
Counter attacks to score.
Be prepared for a physical match.

Tim Hanley is a former assistant coach for the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy. He also played for the Quakes in the NASL.