Eastern wild cards in 2013 are off to slow starts

By Ridge Mahoney

Six months after meeting in the wild-card round of the 2014 playoffs, Houston and Montreal are looking for answers after suffering 4-0 defeats.

By falling to the Red Bulls by that score Wednesday night, the Dynamo labored through a fifth consecutive match without winning. It has struggled through tough times before, yet it has lost four of those games and been outscored, 12-2. (It conceded 41 goals in 34 games last season.)

The Impact endured a 4-0 thumping at Sporting Kansas City Saturday and is one of league’s four winless teams at 0-4-3. While the makeover instilled by new head coach Frank Klopas wasn’t expected to take immediately -- he inherited a team that lost six of its last eight games and plummeted from first place to fifth last year -- the poor start translates to one win, 10 losses and four ties going back to the end of 2013.

“It’s my responsibility,” Klopas said Tuesday. “I know that. I know that I have to get results. I have a big responsibility to the organization. They’ve been great to me. I came here because I believe in the organization. I love this city, the fans are great. It’s not easy. I don't sleep at night at all because this is all I think about, believe me: what we can do better.”

The track records of these teams are very different. Dominic Kinnear is the only coach the Dynamo has had since it moved from San Jose in 2006 and has led it to the MLS Cup final four times, winning twice; Klopas is the Impact’s third coach in as many seasons and has been hired to successfully incorporate the European talent it wishes to showcase.

A case can be made that Montreal did better last weekend than Houston, which played a rested New York team four days grinding out a 0-0 tie in Philadelphia. The Impact fell behind against Sporting KC on an own goal when a borderline illegal throw-in by Matt Besler caromed off the head of midfielder Calum Mallace, making his first MLS start of the season, and looped over keeper Troy Perkins into the net. It battled stubbornly until the 71st minute, when SKC defender Aurelien Collin steered a shot along the ground through a crowd of players just inside the post. A pair of Dom Dwyer finishes upped the final scoreline.

Collin also cleared a Marco Di Vaio shot off the goal line that would have tied the game, 1-1, and later in the first half the Italian veteran fired another good opportunity wide of the post. Felipe’s runs tested the SKC back line until he and his teammates ran out of fuel. It won’t be of any solace to Montreal fans but their team didn’t deserve to lose by such a grotesque score, though several players were out-hustled by Dwyer as he scrapped for a loose ball that eventually rolled for Collin to dispatch.

As for the Dynamo, though it squandered a pair of excellent opportunities that fell to Andrew Driver -- he headed a clean chance right at Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles and drilled a perfect cutback well over the crossbar -- the defense crumbled. Bradley Wright-Phillips converted two centering passes from players unchallenged on the flanks for a 2-0 halftime lead. In the second half, Thierry Henry put away a point-blank opportunity created by Wright-Phillips’ serve from the wing that goalkeeper Tally Hall pushed right to him, and in the final minutes he graciously allowed Wright-Phillips to round off his hat trick from the penalty spot.

Both teams were missing key attacking players. Tim Cahill sat out, as did Dynamo playmaker Brad Davis.

For the Red Bulls, Peguy Luyindula played in the hole behind forwards Henry and Wright-Phillips, and all three found huge gaps in the Dynamo defensive third. Warren Creavalle hasn’t played much right back and it showed, though left-side counterpart Corey Ashe also struggled as Lloyd Sam, Roy Miller, Kosuke Komura and Eric Alexander controlled the flanks.

Kinnear has moved Honduran attacker Oscar Boniek Garcia into the middle this season from his normal wide position, and against the Red Bulls he was tasked with shouldering some of the offensive impetus usually provided by Davis. While he’s adept at dribbling in tight spaces and knocking balls past defenders he can run onto, the Honduran's passing can be erratic. The muddle in the middle worsened when his central midfield partner, Ricardo Clark,  stayed down after a midfield collision and had to be helped off the field in the 63rd minute. In addition to Driver’s misses, Giles Barnes hit a couple of decent opportunities right to the keeper, and after a terrible giveaway straight from the second-half kickoff Barnes set up Will Bruin to hit a low shot that a charging Robles just got a piece of.

The Dynamo thus could be missing Clark and Davis when it turns around quickly again to host Portland Sunday. Montreal, which played its first three home games in Olympic Stadium due to weather concerns, gets back to Stade Saputo Saturday against Philadelphia.

There were certainly mitigating circumstances for the Dynamo: a fresher opponent, the absence of Davis, the need for Creavalle to replace Kofi Sarkodie, the injury to Clark, several missed chances, a superb game by Henry. Yet defensive shape was a mess long before Clark departed and the same type of individual breakdowns that had contributed to the winless run recurred.

Houston (2-4-1) has made the playoffs all three years since moving into the Eastern Conference and charged into the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup finals on the momentum of second-half surges, so a run of poor results in the first quarter of the season isn’t cause for alarm. Yet in the standings it has already fallen behind the only other team to lose, 4-0, in 2014: New England (2-3-2), which on the first weekend of the season fell by that score at BBVA Compass Stadium.

As this early phase, in the Eastern Conference only defending champion Sporting Kansas City looks solid. New coaches in Chicago, Montreal and Columbus are sorting things out, only recently have the Revs and Red Bulls shaken out of their funks, Philly is transforming its identity, D.C. is slightly better than last year’s disaster, Toronto’s blockbuster renovation is a work-in-progress, and the most consistent team historically, Houston, is hovering between staleness and stability.

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