FC Cincinnati – Houston Dynamo: FC Cincinnati Claim Three Points In Spite Of Uninspiring Display (3-2)

Houston Dynamo’s record on the road keeps haunting them, as last-placed FC Cincinnati was the latest side to take advantage of their opponents’ poor defending and dysfunctional possession game.

Tactical analysis and match report by Kareem Bianchi.

Although set in the bottom half of the table, the encounter between Houston Dynamo and FC Cincinnati was interesting to follow because of the visitors’ unique trend. Unbeaten at home, yet just one win and seven losses in games away from home soil. MLS new boys FC Cincinnati seemed like the perfect fit to interrupt the losing streak, yet the game turned out otherwise.

FC Cincinnati’s French manager Yoann Damet fielded a 4-2-3-1 shape with (from right to left) Justin Hoyte, Nick Hagglund, Kendall Waston and Mathieu Deplagne starting ahead of goalkeeper Spencer Richey. In midfield starred the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. composed of Allan Cruz and Leonardo Bertone; in attack, Rashawn Daily lead the line, with Emmanuel Ledesma, Frankie Amaya, and Kekuta Manneh behind as support.

Wilmer Cabrera’s side, also in a 4-2-3-1, saw (left to right) Adam Lundqvist, Kevin Garcia, Aljaz Struna and A.J, DeLaGarza form the backline protecting Joe Willis’ goal. Matias Vera and Juan Cabesaz featured in midfield, whilst Thomas NcNamara, Boniek Garcia and Alberth Elis ought to assist center-forward Mauro Manotas.

Passive start

Both sides started out the game in a rather passive manner, especially in possession. The natural transition from a 4-2-3-1 shape against the ball is a 4-4-2 with the attacking midfielder stepping onto the forward’s line. Therefore, Boniek Garcia from Houston would step up to form a compact first line of pressing, while the midfield line defended the space in the second line. 

Due to the lack of active pressure applied, however, FC Cincinnati’s center-backs had enough time to pick out and execute passes. To exploit the space further, one of the home team’s central midfielders would drop between the two opposing attackers to pin them and potentially allow the center-back to carry the ball. Meanwhile, the midfielder away from the ball shifted wide to drag one of the midfielders with him. The attacking midfielder, Amaya, could now drop and receive in the space between the two stretched pivots, supported by the nearest winger, who would position himself in the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. to occupy the free midfielder. 

One of the few interesting sequences from the first half occurred in the first minute. The pass from Waston to Amaya, though, was not weighted correctly and the central overload went unexploited.

At times the center-backs did not recognize the opportunity to dribble into space, preferring to play a back pass to the goalkeeper instead, from whom Cincinnati could directly access the target man Daily or the forward lines.

Chaotic and direct

Cincinnati’s 4-4-2 defensive shape would turn into a press upon certain pressing triggers.   A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. One of their strikers was instructed to step out on the opposition’s center-back, when an imaginary line was breached (usually when the ball-carrier is deemed potentially threatening and stepping in the midfield). In these cases, the closest man to the player in possession left his line while blocking the passing lane to one of the midfielders using his cover shadow, When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. and the other striker marked the free central midfielder.

For Houston, press resistance issues from individual players was an issue. Another issue was Houston’s poor staggering and support around the ball, meaning that the ball was often kicked long up the field, without any possible receiver anywhere near the landing spot. So, paradoxically, even if in possession, Houston’s play was unintentionally defensive. 

The issue at building up mainly stemmed from the first line’s isolation from the rest of the team, as no player was accessible when the center-backs had the ball. The only options available were near the sidelines, in vertical passes from fullback to winger; opposing fullbacks generally reacted quickly, though, and immediately closed down the receiver, stopping him from turning and thus interrupting the play.

Overall neither team showcased particularly elaborate play since the positioning and decision-making of the players was often suboptimal, particularly in forward areas, where spaces between the lines were left unoccupied by both teams. A frequent scenario from both sides saw one midfielder drop while the other stepped up, completely vacating the space behind the first line and virtually cutting any possible solution for a clean progression. Kendall Waston in particular had numerous opportunities to carry the ball in the halfspace in which he preferred to recycle it back instead.

Defensive instability is paid

How FC Cincinnati’s first goal went in was quite telling about Houston’s dysfunctional possession game. The disjointed lines and positioning far too flat, led to impossibilities in creating any openings, manipulate the opponents or even counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. as the counterpressing action could easily be bypassed with one simple pass. This allowed the home side to recover possession high up the field and counter in numerical parity with space available. The second goal was a mix of the lack of vertical compactness highlighted earlier and poor communication and behavior from the backline; too slow to attack the ball-carrier and subsequently the second ball, and at adapting to such movements with cover in order not to expose space in the defensive line. 

Only in the second half were the Houston Dynamo incidentally able to bypass the pressing more consistently through a horizontal, yet effective, deep circulation of the ball. In the first half, the inability to create a steady possession during buildup due to the opponent’s front two’s pressing forced the visitors long, but the dropping of both pivots gave Cabrera’s team the opportunity to overload one side and quickly switch to the weak side. 

Furthermore, Cincinnati’s defensive shape’s priority was to protect the zone, therefore, unless an opponent could immediately threaten the defense, players rarely left their block to follow dropping movements. This allowed one of the central midfielders to act as a free man and facilitate the build-up, at least until the closest defender picked him up. The frequent switches also gave the visitors more space to attack aggressively, given the struggles at building up calmly. 



Considering the second half improvements in their possession game, Houston Dynamo’s efforts deserved at least an equalizer, however collective and individual mistakes cost the visitors their first positive result away from home since their win at Colorado in March. The third goal, in particular, came at a time when the Dynamos seemed to be in control of the game and ultimately ended up costing them one point. Cincinnati, on the other hand, managed to snatch three points despite an inconsistent and uninspiring performance, in which they capitalized on the opponents’ errors without having to break a sweat, especially in the first half.  

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