Houston v. Pachuca: What Stuck

Houston Dynamo 2 - 0 CF Pachuca (Report)

Um, holy poop. Never did I expect this score-line, not least after that frantic first half. But the more remarkable thing was that after scoring that first, somewhat fluky goal, Houston settled into an impressive rhythm; I think it’s fair to say they had Pachuca on the back-foot by the game’s end. Not to take anything away from Houston - and I can’t believe I’m writing this about a game between Mexicans and Americans - but the officiating helped Houston; the question is to what extent.

One big picture point to pass on: this game was a hell of a lot more fun to watch than the DC United v. CD Chivas de Guadalajara affair.

These cats looked so slick for the first twenty minutes that I feared a rout going opposite the final tally. They looked able to carve openings with short, tight passing in the Houston defense at will. With Kelly Gray struggling, they had their best luck down their left side, though Pachuca’s #10 player’s storming runs up the middle caused some problems as well. Their massive center-back was certainly imposing; didn’t look like Houston would ever get around that guy.

Then, something happened; I’m still working out what. Part of it was Houston settling down - Gray’s left side in particular - and, gradually, the gaping opportunities, of which there were a few stopped appearing; Zach Wells saved their best chance, over-enthusiastic finishing launched shots over the bar, and other pulled their shots wide. Then the officiating - which wasn’t awful, but, shockingly, was generous to Houston - seemed to get inside their heads. Players got angry, then they get chippy, and, finally, they got flustered.

In the end, Pachuca’s worst enemy was Pachuca. They got unsettled, they gave up one soft goal (Brian Ching’s near-range, wide-open headed goal) and utterly fell apart on the second. Finishing just one of their several first-half chances would have meant a lot to this series.

I count myself a fan of Kelly Gray; his versatility is a valuable commodity if nothing else. But I can’t think of a player on either team who had a worse day. So many lowlights: more desperate lunges than I can count (though he nailed a crucial one smack in the middle of the second half), a ten-to-fifteen minute period in the first half when Gray could, literally, not complete a pass to a teammate, and a lackadaisical moment where a lurking Pachuca forward caught him napping en route to a retrieving a ball rolling toward his goal.

But Gray’s individual performance embodied that of his team. That crunching, 70th-ish minute tackle, which that stopped a Pachuca counter dead in its tracks, came around the time Houston started to assert itself in the game. By that time, Gray, along with the rest of Houston, sharpened their game: they intercepted pass after pass by stepping assuredly into the passing lanes; they knocked the ball around quickly and efficiently, keeping possession for decent chunks of time for the first time in 2007. By the end of the game, Houston was on something close to cruise control. If you told me I would type that last sentence anytime before 4:15 p.m. PST yesterday, I would have laughed in your face.

But it happened.

Houston Player Notes
Craig Waibel - Your man of the match. No question for me. Just dominating in the back. He paired well enough with Robinson that I’d consider making the switch permanent.

Wade Barrett - deserves honorable mention at the very least. He and Waibel combined to keep Houston afloat when things looked dark early.

Brian Ching - was absent for so much of the game, but I’m mainly preoccupied with trying to figure out how he got open as he did on his goal. Like the rest of the team, he picked it up and made a couple of nice runs with the ball at his feet, which led to fouls, etc. Good enough day.

Brad Davis - finally looked like himself. The free-kicks/corners/crosses looked good and, toward the end, he did very well with managing possession. And sharp cross on the second goal.

Brian Mullan - can’t lay much claim to having an effective day, at least on offense; little of what he attempted came off. But he was active and disruptive on Houston’s right defense. He seems to be having trouble getting started this year.

Kelly Gray - enjoyed a late tale of redemption; I could hear the stirring music in the background.

Alejandro Moreno - I finally caught how this guy draws so many fouls. His sense of how to establish position at the very last possible second recalls the knack some basketball players have for drawing charges. He had a basically useful day. And I love the sly grin this guy wears as he plays; put another way, Moreno looks how he plays: cunning.

Zach Wells - Clutch, half-lucky first-half save aside, his other notable contribution was less clear-cut. When he came way off his line to try to head the ball away from a Pachuca player, he did leave his net terribly exposed (Waibel covered); but would that have been any worse than letting the player settle and charge in on goal? Even if it almost fell apart, it was a defensible decision.

Dwayne DeRosario - I don’t recall DeRosario being the focus of a tussle like that before; doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but it was noteworthy to me. No less noteworthy: that simple pass that sprung Davis to set up the second goal.

Chris Wondolowski - way to go, kid! Hell of a finish. Come to Portland and I’ll buy you a beer.

While Houston is by no means on to the final, they certainly did what they had to ahead of the return leg to Mexico. Resisting the temptation to play “bunker-ball” might be the wiser course; killing of games is one technique with which MLS clubs still need practice, even if the future is now. Still, that second half performance has me believing they could actually get a result in Pachuca. And they should expect something very different by way of officiating.

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