Route Two Soccer – Is Houston’s Turnaround For Real?

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Houston made two big changes over the last month—parting ways with Randy Waldrum, and welcoming Carli Lloyd back into the fold. Since then, their fortunes have turned significantly, capped off by a 2-1 victory away to FC Kansas City this weekend.

It would be an overstatement to say that these two changes are the reasons for Houston’s improved results. As they say, correlation is not causation, and the game is far too complex for any single cause to dominate. That said, the turnaround has been significant, and not just in the results. While Houston still don’t really look like a playoff contender, their performance against KC was their most complete and coherent on the season.

So it’s worth taking some time to dig into the shift, to evaluate the changes and assess whether the ‘real’ Dash are the team who lost six in a row, the team that just took seven points from three games, or (most likely) somewhere in between.

Lloyd’s Return

Carli Lloyd is one of the most fascinating players in American soccer, even if you’re only focused on her performances on the pitch. But potentially even more interesting are the collective responses to those performances. In particular, it’s hard to think of a player who moves so quickly between overrated and underrated.

And that’s because Lloyd is a player of extremes. She is famously aggressive—in her style of play, in her commitment to challenges, and in her training. And that aggression can produce some stunning results, particularly when the stakes are high. It’s no coincidence that many of her goals are game-winners, or that her best performances always seem to come in the most critical games. In many ways, her intensity seems to feed off the big moments. She moves all around the pitch, winning balls, firing off passes, willing the rest of the team to drive forward and press their advantage. And when she’s on her game, she truly is world class.

At the same time, for a great player, Lloyd can also look shockingly ineffective for long stretches. That’s always been true but is even more apparent as she’s grown older and her engine has cooled a bit. When things aren’t clicking, she struggles to find the ball, and when she does get it is more than likely to overcommit to a pass or dribble and give it right back. She can get frustrated and lash out, or she can keep pressing harder to make something out of limited opportunities and short-circuit any chance of a useful buildup.

These two versions of Lloyd generate wildly different outcomes but carry the same basic DNA. Her tendency to drift is a huge advantage when she’s playing well, making her very difficult to mark, and giving her endless opportunities to exploit the space between the defense and midfield. When she’s playing poorly, the tables are turned. The team continues to circle around her but with the catalyst no longer functioning, play tends to sputter and die out.

These are real weaknesses, and they are a big part of why the US National Team needs to start planning seriously for the post-Carli world. But it would be a huge mistake to see Lloyd as nothing but those weaknesses. Because even when she is playing poorly, there will still be a few moments in a game when the good version will pop up and make a contribution that virtually no one else in the world could manage. For the USWNT, that sort of gamble is probably a poor bet. But for a team like Houston—particularly in the middle of their long losing streak—there are very few players in the world that you’d rather see returning to the fold.

Part of that is down to the mental and emotional side of the game. When you’re down and out, it can be hard to retain the confidence necessary to play well. That can lead to timid play, a recipe for disaster. But one of Lloyd’s key defining qualities is her indomitable will. She will take all those doubts and channel them into pure aggression. With her on the pitch, there’s no fear. There may be some recklessness, but there is no fear. And that’s incredibly important for a team trying to right the ship.

But there’s also a crucial tactical element of Lloyd’ return that’s worth addressing.

An extremely modest 4-4-2

Early in the season, I wrote about Lloyd’s return and said that it was “unclear whether Lloyd actually fits into the system that Houston needs to play. She’s certainly not well suited for a lethal counterattacking unit built on pace and quick one-touch passing to slice through a defense in transition.”

And that remains basically true. But it also depends a lot on your point of reference. At the time, the Dash had leapt out of the starting gate and were contemplating a strong push for the playoffs. And in that context, Lloyd’s noted weaknesses could easily have been disruptive. But the Dash today are facing far worse conditions, and the gamble of Lloyd is looking like a much better bet.

After all, the problem with Lloyd is that she tends to dominate the offensive framework. Everything either goes through her or around her, which is great when she’s playing well but a recipe for stagnation when she drifts out of the game. But the Dash were already stagnating offensively, so there wasn’t much danger of making things worse. And if Lloyd can be unreliable, you’re still guaranteed some great moments.

Eight seconds later, Houston scored.

And this week, that’s precisely what they got. Watch their two goals, and you’ll note that in both cases there was essentially no buildup at all. For the first goal, Lloyd claimed the ball fairly deep in the defensive half, dribbled past a couple defenders, and sent a long through-ball right to Daly, who then scored. The ball spent about eight seconds in the attacking half before being slotted home. And the second goal was even more abrupt. It came from a free kick in the Houston half (the one resulting from LaBonta’s second yellow card), and it took all of five seconds from Amber Brooks kicking the ball to Nichelle Prince scoring.

The first goal was vintage Lloyd, making one transcendent pass that produced a goal, in a game when Houston was having tremendous difficulty generating much of anything.

Now, it’s not that the Dash had no useful possession in the game. They did manage a few decent chances developed through a more measured build up, and managed to keep the ball reasonably well (at least by their standards). But it wasn’t producing much. And it wasn’t the heart of their approach.

Where is the width?

One other crucial feature of this 4-4-2 is just how narrowly it was pinched. In the past, when using Lloyd in this role, Houston has tried to spread the forward out wide, giving her more room to roam in the middle and allowing attacking runs in from the wings. But there wasn’t much of that here. Nor were the midfielders going to the wings.

The width, therefore, was supplied almost exclusively by the fullbacks, and mostly from Poliana on the right. Particularly in the first half, the vast majority of Houston’s attacks came down the right, pitting two young attacking fullbacks against each other, with Gibbons playing that role for KC.

In contrast to Waldrum—who benched Poliana this year, out of apparent frustration at her poor defending—Morales appears to be looking to take advantage of her strength in the attack and is willing to tolerate her defensive limitations. There are dangers in this, and Poliana’s aggressive attacking instincts can often leave her woefully out of position. But there are also clear advantages, and it seems like Morales is willing to gamble. Over the long haul, there may be games where that decision ends up being costly. But given Poliana’s clear attacking abilities, and given the difficulties generating width anywhere else, it’s a choice that makes a lot of sense.

Defensive stability

Another key change for Houston is in the central defensive pairing, where Morales has chosen to use Amber Brooks. With the return of Janine Van Wyk, the Dash have had a stable center back combination for the first time all season.

And that’s important. Defensive organization is difficult, and doubly so when the personnel changes every week. With that in mind, Morales seems to be working hard to make sure the best doesn’t become the enemy of the good. Yes, there are obvious problems with the Brooks/Van Wyk pairing. Namely: both are slow, neither are good defenders on the move, and neither have a particularly keen sense of how to manage defensive space.

But the simple fact is that Houston doesn’t have any great defenders. They all have flaws, so while you might want to bench a player after a bad game, there’s not really any light at the end of that tunnel. In the end, better to simply pick a combination and let them develop together. And while I would never have chosen Brooks for the job, it’s worth noting that she’s taken quite well to the position change. And that move—from holding midfield to the backline—is certainly not unprecedented.

It’s hard to say whether this will ultimately turn out to be a long-term success. But as a stopgap measure, the decision to move Brooks back is looking smart.

LaBonta’s red card: Houston avoids taking the bait

Perhaps the most important moment of the game was Lo’eau LaBonta’s red card. Not only did it reduce KC to 10 players, it also produced the free kick on which Houston seized the lead, and fundamentally changed the structure of the game from that point onward.

Now, it’s never a bad thing to gain a player advantage. But in Houston’s case there was a real danger here. Their game plan was pretty straightforward. Defend deep, protect that fragile backline, and stay compact. And generally speaking, they executed this plan well.

But once they were up a player, there’s a real chance that Houston might have shifted gears, grown more comfortable in possession, opened up their play, and allowed themselves to get drawn forward. And even down a player, Leroux and (especially) Groom can be absolutely lethal with the ball at their feet and space to move into.

But Houston effectively just refused to take the bait. Which led to a peculiar final third of the match, in which the team up a player basically conceded possession and drew back into a defensive shell. It wasn’t especially courageous, certainly wasn’t pretty, and still produced a couple iffy moments. But it worked.

Knowing your limits and playing to your strengths

As I noted at the start, it’s hard to tell a clear causal story here. It’s possible that this is just a normal regression to the mean, with Houston simply returning to the form that they showed last year: a mid-table team, who can win ugly enough to stay off the bottom but can’t do much more.

But ‘regression to the mean’ is sometimes too pat an explanation.

Yes, the underlying talent was still there. And sure, they could easily have played like this back when Waldrum was coach and Lloyd was back in England. But they didn’t. For the first two months, this looked like a team where everyone had read different playbooks. Now, they’re playing with resolve and commitment. And while there are still plenty of mistakes and scary moments, at least they all seem to be moving in the same direction.

For the first time, this looks like a team that understands its major weaknesses, and are at least trying to do something about them.

That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s a real success story. It is hard to stick to a plan over the course of a whole game, particularly when events turn in your favor. And it’s a testament to Houston’s resolve that they were able to do it.

The real question now, though, is whether they can stick with the plan going forward. It’s easy to buy into an approach when it’s working. What happens when they play a couple games in a row where Lloyd isn’t able to conjure any goals, and where they’re just forced to sit back and take 90 minutes of relentless pressure?

Only time will tell. But looking backward, there’s some pretty overwhelming evidence that Lloyd, at least, makes a huge difference. Here are Houston’s points per game over the last two years, both with her and without:

  • With Lloyd: 1.9 points per game (easily a playoff pace)
  • Without Lloyd: 0.7 points per game (marginally better than Boston 2016)

Clearly, some of that must be coincidental. But that is an enormous gap, and it would be pretty difficult to argue that she hasn’t made a big difference.