Houston v. Puntarenas: Celebration Edition

"In the end, it wasn't dominance or a flashy play that gave the Dynamo their first — and so far most important — victory at the international level. Instead it was teamwork, grit and simply being at the right place at the right time that propelled the Dynamo to the semifinals of CONCACAF's Champions' Cup."
- Bernardo Fallas, Houston Chronicle, 03.02.07 (LINK)

With that lead, Fallas described the Houston Dynamo's hard-scrabble win over Costa Rica's Puntarenas FC as well as can be done. But the same point can be said more directly: Houston won ugly. That's not to say the didn't deserve to win; they did and clearly so as I see it. But even after reading several articles and reviews, I feel no need to alter what I wrote about this match last night. The profound unease of witnessing Houston's inability to either possess the ball or successfully clear it, knowing that minute by minute, I was getting later and later at picking up my daughter from Girl Scouts, that's what really drove home the ugliness and uncertainy of this win for me. I found myself unable to leave because I simply couldn't trust them to keep the necessary clean sheet.

Though it made for more painful viewing, Houston's win remains the bigger accomplishment of the two Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs. It's not just that this is, as Jeff Carlisle pointed out over on ESPN's site, the first time a Major League Soccer side beat a Costa Rican team in a home-and-away series in CONCACAF Champions Cup play. No disrespect to DC United intended, but it's clear that Puntarenas was a stronger match for Houston than Olimpia proved to be for DC.

In any case, I know what I saw and here's the big picture: the talk about the better field working to both teams' advantage definitely held last night. Assuming the field was bigger in dimension, Puntarenas did plenty to make it look small - damned small at times; the Costa Ricans pressure on the ball was incredible, if uneven, and it hit a peak during the game's frantic finish. But there was something weird in this as well: for all their pressure, and for as much time as Houston just couldn't get the ball clear, Puntarenas really struggled to get clear shots on goal. And when they did, Zach Wells was always there, something an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle reminded me of today. For me, Wells stands as man of the match and the series.

On the opposite side, Houston had some great moments to complement their scrappy ones. The one that stands out, particulary in the context of Puntarenas' pressure, was the Dynamo's first goal; Brian Mullan had days to tee-up his cross to the far post and I can't, for the life of me, figure how he found that much space on the wing. Here, as well as with the second goal, it's fair to acknowledge something from Marc Connolly's contribution to this Love-In:

"Both of Houston's goals came from rebounds, which should please head coach Dominic Kinnear. It's one thing to create chances and get shots on frame. But to have players swarming around the goal and getting to loose balls in traffic is the mark of a great team."

Change the word "great" to "effective" and I'm on board with that quote; and, no, those concepts aren't synonymous in my world.

The point is, Houston simply wasn't going to win this game, or score those goals, any other way than the way they did - e.g. scrappy goals in a scrappy game. Shockingly loose as the marking was on the first goal, Kelly Gray's winner - i.e. the goal that counted - came from inside a scrum; had the ball not bounced directly his way, things might have ended a lot differently. With the amount of flopping Puntarenas' Mario Camacho was doing, there was the ever-present threat of a free-kick in a dangerous place - one of which gave the Costa Ricans their best chance - or a penalty call that would have had all of us saying something different today. Over both legs, Puntarenas severely limited Houston's ability to play, or possess the ball. A realization about coping with an effective pressure game comes out of this: it makes better sense to play t he ball into one of your guys upfield, even if he's standing in the teeth of the defense, than it is to play the ball laterally or back; that way, at least your side still has players behind the ball if and when it gets coughed up. It certainly doesn't make for an easy night and it's certainly not pretty, but it serves the purpose - especially on a night when your side just isn't clicking well enough to knock it around.

The big picture take-away is that this was one hell of a tricky series and Houston did very well to survive it.

And, whoops, it seems a smart idea to add a link to video highlights of the game for those who didn't catch it. Enjoy.

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