The 1-0 first leg may have been decided by a rather fluky goal, but for much of the game FC Dallas bossed the midfield. To overcome that one-goal deficit Houston must take command in the middle third so Dwayne DeRosario can slice forward to take cracks at goal and thread through-balls, and Brian Mullan can provide quality service from the flanks.
HOUSTON vs. FC DALLAS
Western Conference semifinal, second leg
(Dallas leads, 1-0, on aggregate)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Direct Kick, mlslive.tv
In midfielders Juan Toja and Pablo Ricchetti, FCD has smart, skillful players who can win the ball and play it forward intelligently. The range of Toja, the positioning of Ricchetti, and the tenacity of Adrian Serioux are formidable barriers.
A Serioux throw-in cleared defenders Craig Waibel and Eddie Robinson as keeper Pat Onstad inexplicably backed up. Had Onstad held his position he would have caught the ball easily. Instead, it bounced on the edge of the goal area and caromed off defender Ryan Cochrane to FCD defender Clarence Goodson, who blasted home the sitter.
Ricchetti and Serioux effectively clogged the passing lanes for much of the match and severely limited the supply to forwards Brian Ching and Joseph Ngwenya.
The Dynamo failed to exploit Ching's ability to play with his back to goal and chipped balls into space rather than play to his feet and chest, and managed only four shots on goal.
FCD also committed 23 fouls, indicative of its occasional inability to win the ball cleanly. Houston can put pressure on the FCD back line by crisper, one-touch passing and playing smarter balls for Mullan, who can't outpace left back Chris Gbandi if the latter has a cushion but can deliver accurate crosses if he gets a step on his marker.
On its way to the title last year, Houston lost the first leg of the conference semifinals to Chivas USA, 2-1, and advanced on aggregate, 3-2, by winning, 2-0.
Houston has scored two or more goals 10 times this season, and has beaten FCD in three of their four meetings (3-0, 2-1, 1-0). But its scoring has tailed off the past month; in the last four games, including the 1-0 playoff loss in Dallas last week, it has scored just two goals.
This barren spell is reminiscent of its start to the season, a drought of just one goal in the first four games. Ching hasn't scored since his goal beat Dallas, 1-0, Aug. 19 and Ngwenya has been blanked since netting in a 1-1 tie against Kansas City Sept. 1.
Ching and Ngwenya tied for the team lead in goals with seven; Nate Jaqua, who also saw time in midfield, placed next with six. Whoever plays up front will have to be in sync if Houston is to conjure up enough chances to win.
"He runs the channels pretty well," says Ching of Ngwenya, who was replaced by Jaqua in the 70th minute. "He holds the ball up well and he's a good complement to myself."
Two goals might not be enough for Houston to win in regulation. Carlos Ruiz is, well, Carlos Ruiz, Kenny Cooper is rounding back into shape, and speedsters Dominic Oduro and Abe Thompson can get in behind any MLS back line.
Ricchetti is questionable with a groin injury, so the busy, efficient Dax McCarty might get the start instead.