On Sunday, the Houston Dynamo travel to PPL Park to take on the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Cup playoffs. While these teams finished second and third, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings this season, neither team is tipped to be a favorite for the MLS Cup. Each team has had their share of highs and lows on the season, but for most of the league, compared to match-ups like the Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake, or the Los Angeles Galaxy vs. the New York Red Bulls, Philly-Houston looks rather bland in comparison.
But why are the Dynamo and Union less-fancied than the other match-ups? You could make a case that this could turn out to be a fascinating series, with Houston's set-piece ability and Philadelphia's often stout defense resulting in a tactical battle. Peter Nowak and Dominic Kinnear are very successful coaches, among the best in MLS history, and they have seen a lot in their time in the league. Both teams seem to have excesses of 'grit' or intangibles, or all those cliches used for teams that may have fight but not as much talent. This could turn out to be a memorable duel.
The problem, however, is that Houston and Philadelphia employed tactics this season that are, ahem, somewhat behind the times. Now tactics differ on different continents and in different levels, and new systems come into vogue and replace or supplant the older ones. But with the tiki-taka revolution that has been so successful for Barcelona and the Spanish national team in recent years, Houston and Philadelphia's tactics seem positively stone-age in comparison.
Just about everybody who has watched soccer on a global scale in the past five years has noticed the short passing game that is central to Barcelona and Spain. Small players are valued, as the aerial game is made largely irrelevant, and even speed is not as important as good timing and smart decisions. Players with individual skill, like Leonel Messi, are rewarded in the system, but it is a system that can prove successful for much less-talented players, as long as they well-drilled in the system and all play as a team. Other clubs and national teams are trying to implement this system in part or wholesale, from A.S. Roma to the U.S. Men's National Team. But Barcelona and Spain have the edge for now and the combination of talent and tactics have been difficult to overcome for opponents. It stands to reason, however, that as more teams adopt this style, that advantage will disappear, or as managers devise tactics to neutralize the short passing game, it will become less effective. Eventually, a new system will replace it, but for now, tiki-taka is king.
Obviously, regular watchers of both MLS and global soccer will notice that no MLS team really uses a tiki-taka system in any real capacity. Perhaps the closest is Real Salt Lake, but they frequently hoof it up the field when they're trying to get a result at the end of a game. All in all, the system that Jurgen Klinsmann wants to implement in the U.S. national set-up has a long way to go before it trickles into the premier professional league in the United States.
Instead, we see a tried-and-true 4-4-2 from Houston, with size being the key feature. Brad Davis was so important this season for the Dynamo because he is excellent at providing service into the box, where any number of tall players, from the forwards on back to the defenders, were taller than most opposing teams and could smash balls in for goals. The Dynamo's size advantage was useful at times in the run of play, but it was particularly on dead ball situations that it proved crucial. While Houston has a few small, quick players, like Danny Cruz, their talent deficits are often covered up by their size advantage. With an assist man like Davis setting up teammates, it has proved successful.
The problem is that Houston's size means they are slow, and they like the long ball. Certainly, I don't advocate all teams switch to a short passing game, but going from a short passing style to a long ball style is often like going from standard definition to high definition. Sure, standard def still provides the picture, and it can sometimes look about as good as HD, and gets the job done, but HD really is more dynamic in the end.
As for Philadelphia, their tactics have differed more from game to game and over the course of the season than Houston's. Nowak gets results more often than not, so there seems to be a method to it, but his decisions regarding personnel and tactics are often puzzling. During the first part of the season, the Union played very defensively, so much so that commentators (jokingly) believed they were playing a 9-0-1 or 8-1-1, with Carlos Ruiz as the primary offensive player. Obviously, that formation wasn't literally deployed, but it often appeared during Ruiz's tenure with the club that he was the only player counted on to provide goals. Even Sebastien Le Toux, the Union's star in 2010, had his wings clipped, and barely scored through the first two-thirds of the season.
Following Ruiz's surprising departure, however, Nowak seemed to relax his overemphasis on defense that led to the Union having one of the best defensive records but led to few goals and perhaps the most boring play in the league. Coupled with the also-surprising midseason trade of starting full back Jordan Harvey to the Vancouver Whitecaps for nothing but allocation money, Philly's defense suddenly took a dive while their offense perked up. Injuries to Faryd Mondragon and fatigue to the team overall meant the stout defensive shape disappeared, while Le Toux found his touch and scored 10 goals in his final 12 games. It was more exciting to watch the Union, but they lost the plot in getting results.
All of this is to say that while the Dynamo and Union are not among the most exciting teams to watch, either globally or in the league, they have found a way to find success in MLS. Neither team is among the most talented, and their respective coaches have implemented styles that are out of vogue compared to cutting edge systems used elsewhere. But it is often necessary to sacrifice cool points and prestige in order to win, even if that means the system is boring. They don't award a trophy for style in MLS, and the Dynamo and Union are just fine with that.
Be sure to follow the MLS Cup playoffs at SB Nation Soccer. For more insight and analysis into the Union, check out Brotherly Game. For the latest on the Dynamo, check out Dynamo Theory.