MLS teams San Jose and Houston in transition take on new identities

By Ridge Mahoney

Two teams in transition played a 1-0 match on a Tuesday that just happened to be Cinco de Mayo, so fan bases beyond those of San Jose and Houston could be forgiven if they missed it.

Adam Jahn headed home a quickly taken free kick and David Bingham stoned Giles Barnes from the penalty spot as the Quakes posted their fourth victory since Dominic Kinnear left the Dynamo to resume his life in San Jose, near his Northern California hometown of Fremont and where he started his coaching career in 2001. This is his 15th season coaching in MLS and his 12th as a head coach.

Replacement Owen Coyle came to Houston in December. His coaching career began in 2003 and has taken him to Scotland and England as well as the United States. Kinnear’s return after nine seasons, during which he won two MLS Cup titles and led his team to another pair of appearances in the final, drove much of the pre-game buildup even though Kinnear took pains to tamp down the buzz.

There wasn’t much buzz, anyway. Barely two months into the season, both teams have more questions than answers, and one 90-minute encounter on a Tuesday night wasn’t going to provide solutions. Yet like any early-season game between teams seeking an identity as well as results, the talking points were plentiful.

New keepers take over. Both head coaches wrought changes in goal. Kinnear cut loose veteran Jon Busch, and promoted long-time backup David Bingham, who played collegiately across the bay at Cal-Berkeley. Before Coyle took over, Houston traded Tally Hall to Orlando City SC and handed the gloves to Tyler Deric. Busch and Hall had played a combined 280 games for the teams that jettisoned them. Prior to 2015, Bingham had appeared in five league games for San Jose. Deric’s resume included 14 MLS matches, 11 of which came last year.

Bingham and Deric are among the league leaders in saves and Deric has already won the MLS Save of the Week Award three times. Yet on Tuesday Bingham came up with the big stops. He pushed aside a low drive off the foot of Ricardo Clark in the first minute of the second half, and four minutes after Jahn headed in Matias Perez Garcia’s free kick, Bingham dove to his left to deflect Barnes’ penalty kick.

Both Bingham and Deric are young, 25 and 26, respectively, and have long careers in front of them if they can learn the ropes fairly quickly. San Jose conceded as many goals as the Sounders did last year, 50, but they scored 30 fewer. No team in the Eastern Conference gave up more goals than the 58 leaked by Houston in 2014.

Midfield showdown postponed. The range and energy of Quakes rookie Fatai Alashe prompted Kinnear to call him a “young Ricardo Clark” at the SuperDraft in January, and for about 25 minutes a highly anticipated duel was on display. But during a flying challenge by Clark for a ball in the air his knee caught Alashe in the back. Clark was cautioned and J.J. Koval replaced Alashe, who as the No. 4 overall draft pick is expected to play a lot this year.

The Quakes play again Friday in Colorado and the health of Alashe is one of many decisions Kinnear will face with his team playing its third game in eight days and on just two days’ rest.

Playmakers wanted. Veteran Brad Davis is still a potent force on set plays, and he served up a few quality balls his teammates couldn’t exploit, but Houston’s other creative elements are being auditioned.

For this game, Coyle used Alex Lopez as an attacker underneath Barnes, flanked by Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia, and against San Jose the young Honduran DP atoned somewhat for a miserable showing Friday in a 4-1 pulverizing inflicted by FC Dallas. He took one of Houston’s three shots on goal before being replaced by Will Bruin when Coyle switched to a 4-4-2 (more on that later).

The enigma that is Boniek Garcia persists. He weaved through several Quakes defenders to win the penalty kick that Barnes squandered yet also drifted out of the game for long intervals. Boniek Garcia burst into MLS midway through the 2012 season and played a few blinders that year, but since then has been as maddening as he’s been intoxicating. In his best moments, he’s outstanding and Houston needs more of those moments. In 71 MLS games, he’s scored just nine goals and registered 14 assists.

There’s no such confusion on the Quakes’ side of the ball. Garcia is the unquestioned No. 10 and after being limited by injury to six games in his first MLS season last year, he’s been handed the keys. Jahn’s header gave him his first assist of 2015 and with a predator like Chris Wondolowski in the lineup as well as several big targets on set plays, Kinnear will expect production from his catalyst.

Reliance on set plays, in the extreme. Since he began his coaching career as an assistant to Frank Yallop in 2001, Kinnear has strongly advocated the importance of exploiting and defending set plays. As a first-year MLS head coach, Coyle is still instilling his ideas and philosophies, and so his vision of the Dynamo is far from fully formed.

Of the 25 shots generated by the teams, not counting the missed penalty kick, more than half came off set plays. They combined for 13 shots on set pieces, and 12 from open play. More of the same is likely as these teams go forward.

Barnes or Bruin or both? Coyle’s use of one-forward and two-forward systems has relegated Bruin, the team’s second-leading scorer in 2014 with 11 goals, to the bench much of the time. Barnes has started all nine of his appearances and leads Houston with five goals; Bruin has started just four of nine games and netted his first goal of 2015 in the 4-4 tie with Sporting KC April 25.

A fluffed penalty kick by Barnes was accompanied by another squandered opportunity. Davis dropped a long ball over the San Jose back line, but it took Barnes a few steps to prepare the shot, which he blasted well over the crossbar. Coyle used Bruin and rookie Rob Lovejoy off the bench but the equalizer did not come. Lovejoy, who belted a shot from distance against Montreal last month to claim his first MLS goal, added some spark to the right flank in his 16 minutes of action.

The Dynamo attack will be further reshaped later in the season when Erick "Cubo" Torres arrives from Mexico.

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