Alberth Elis, Houston at Colorado, 7.14.18
Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | Welcoming back a new, improved Houston Dynamo

The shock would breed animosity in other situations, but when the Portland Timbers were eliminated from last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs, few blamed the Houston Dynamo, even if Wilmer Cabrera’s team was going on to the conference finals. No, to the extent that anybody had taken anything away from the Timbers – who’d finished the regular season top of their conference – it felt like fate, bad luck, randomness that landed so many people on the injury report. Perhaps some blame could be cast at the turf in Houston that broke Diego Chara’s foot, or the hotel hot water that burned Sebastián Blanco’s, but the Dynamo themselves? At best, they were given a supporting part.

“When the dust settles, I think we will look back and realize it was a good season,” then-head coach Caleb Porter said, “but it’s also a season where you think to yourself ‘what if?’ ‘What if we were at full strength?’ Because at the start of the year and the end of the year at full strength, we showed what we are capable of, and even tonight’s first half we showed what we are capable of.”

In that reluctance to see the Dynamo as the perpetrator of last year’s disappointment, perhaps there is a note of disrespect, and in that note, perhaps an element that overlooks what the Dynamo have become. From a team that missed the postseason every year from 2014 to 2016, Houston has regrouped, shifting from the Dominic Kinnear-led years that proved so fruitful in the early part of the decade toward the team they have now, one that’s fortified with versatile, underappreciated talents from across the Western Hemisphere.

The most dangerous of the group is Alberth Elis, a 22-year-old forward from Honduras who’s already put up 19 goals in his year-plus in MLS. The combination of speed, power and application the six-foot attacker plies from Houston’s right may be unmatched in Major League Soccer, offer a set of dominant traits the Dynamo have built much of their approach around.

“They’re difficult …,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese conceded during his weekly press conference. “They’ve fast. They’re very dynamic. Also, they’ve acquired some new components.”

With Elis and, on the left, fellow Honduran Romell Quioto, Houston have players capable of terrorizing opposition backlines and deep midfielders whenever other teams aren’t comfortable on the ball. With that athleticism, Houston became known for their counter attacking in Cabrera’s first year, but this season, the team has become more well-rounded. According to data from Opta, the Dynamo has scored only two of its 25 goals through counterattacking (Vancouver Whitecaps FC lead the league with seven) while nine of Houston’s tallies have come from set pieces (second in the league to the New York Red Bulls with 11).

In one respect, that’s a good thing for Portland. The Timbers are next-to-last in MLS in set pieces goals conceded (three), even if they’ve been even better against counters (no goals allowed). In another respect, though, the data hint that Houston has evolved. They’ve grown beyond the team that ended Portland’s season eight months ago.

Back then, faced with a two-legged playoff, Porter’s team hoped to contain Houston on the road then play more like themselves at home. And half the plan worked. Portland got out of BBVA Compass Stadium with a 0-0 draw in leg one, albeit with much of its starting lineup hurt. Back at Providence Park, though, the Timbers never forced Houston out of their shell, with out-of-nowhere goals from Dylan Remnick (notably, off a set piece) and Mauro Manotas dooming Portland’s playoff hopes.

This year, the emergence of Manotas as a primary scoring option may be why the Dynamo aren’t so reliant on one way to beat you. The 23-year-old Colombian took a while to find his stride in Major League Soccer, scoring only six times in his first 31 appearances across the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Since, the team’s No. 9 has 21 goals in 53 games, including a team-leading 11 this year. Added to Elis, Quioto and attacking midfielder Tomás Martínez (suspended for Saturday’s game at Providence Park), Manotas rounds out one of the most dangerous if underappreciated attacking corps in MLS.

“This team is definitely different than other teams,” Savarese said, “because those players play to their strengths in a different way than, maybe, New York City. … But we’re prepared for it. We need to make sure that we execute the plan in order to make sure that we are doing the right things in game, because they are going to present some challenges.”

The variety of options, more than the team’s broadening style, may be the biggest difference with the Dynamo. When general manager Matt Jordan took over, the team was in need of a rebuild, and when Cabrera came in before the beginning of last season, that rebuild was only in its initial stages. But now, when you look across the players that Houston can choose from, you see some genuine potency. In players like midfielder Darwin Ceren and defender Alejandro Fuenmayor (both also suspended come Saturday), they have fortified their spine, while talents like MLS veterans DaMarcus Beasley, Eric Alexander, Leonardo and Boniek García give the team guides to help navigate the landscape.

In other words, Houston is a better team, now. They’re not just a club enjoying a turnaround season, or a squad that’s trying to ride its one trick as far as its worth. It’s a team with options, depth, and different ways to cause you problems. It’s a team that can hurt you.

Portland saw another team like that on Saturday, and in the first half, they allowed themselves to be stung. Twice. But there may be a lesson in what happened against Montreal; or, at least, a reminder. Major League Soccer is filled with talented teams, and merely returning home is not enough to turn the tables. Just as one team has an Ignacio Piatti or Saphir Taïder, another can have an Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas.

Take care of business this Saturday (8pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS), and it won’t be a problem, but just like last week’s, Houston has enough ammunition to ignite those problems.