Talking Tactics: Houston's set pieces
When the Houston Dynamo line up a corner kick, it’s best to put down the nachos and pay attention. Trust me on this one.
Houston’s long-standing ability to turn set pieces into goals is hardly a Wikileakable secret. It’s probably more newsworthy if Dominic Kinnear’s team suffers some improbable streak of failing to convert off corner kicks and free kicks. But the Dynamo’s impressive ability is always worth looking at, for a number of reasons.
First, Houston has a problem at the moment. Don’t let the 2-1-3 record fool you. Beyond Brad Davis’ ability to occasionally improvise, there isn’t much going on in the Dynamo midfield now in terms of creating and breaking down defenses. Same for the Dynamo front line.
The best 45 minutes for the Orange this year came at Red Bull Arena. In no small coincidence, that was the last half of soccer logged by Brian Ching, who is now injured. Without his wise target play, the Dynamo struggle to work any combinations or hold possession long enough to let the midfielders move into positions further up field.
So, given the ongoing offensive slows, why are Kinnear’s men sitting a respectable third in the nine-team Eastern Conference?
Simple: They can strike in numerous ways on set pieces. That ability alone can turn an ordinary attack into a threatening one. Look at Houston’s results of late:
Last weekend’s equalizer in a 1-1 draw in Chicago came off a corner kick. Two weeks ago, a corner kick set up the breakthrough in a 1-0 win over New England. A week earlier, two goals in a 3-1 triumph over Vancouver were off corner kicks.
Here is the raw data: Houston has scored 43 percent of its goals this year directly off free kicks and corner kicks. If you count two more that came as the indirect result of corner kicks, that figure rises to a jaw-dropping 71 percent. Meanwhile, the figure league-wide stands at just 18 percent.
Last year, 28 percent of Dynamo goals came off set pieces. Compare that with 17 percent league-wide.
In truth, the Dynamo aren’t doing anything special. But they do have Davis’ gifted left foot, who some observers consider the best set-piece taker in the league, even better than a certain someone out in LA. Davis consistently drops his corner kicks over the first defender and into the red zone between the penalty spot and the six-yard box. They are devastating in their simplicity, and he can do it every single time.
Next, consider Houston’s targets. Kinnear has long tried to corner the market on big strikers and center backs. The big bodies these days are Cam Weaver, Bobby Boswell, Andre Hainault, Will Bruin, and Geoff Cameron. At 6-foot, Hainault is the shortest of the bunch, yet he's one of the best aerial defenders in the league. These tall trees begin their runs just inside the penalty area. At the same time, one player, usually Hunter Freeman, takes up a spot near the goalkeeper, aiming to make things difficult for the man with the gloves.
All this activity and size demands a massive defensive effort from the opposing side. Last weekend the Fire defended with a combination of man-to-man and zonal marking. Five men lined up in front of the goal, while man markers picked up the three biggest attackers, usually Weaver, Boswell, and Cameron. But that left Bruin and Hainault to run free. So pick your poison there.
New England always marks zonally on corner kicks, but Steve Nicol’s team does it a little differently. The Revs put men on each post and then string three across the “six.” Three additional defenders take up starting positions further out, not really marking per se but attempting to interfere with attackers.
The Revs’ system almost worked at Robertson Stadium two weeks ago. It did take Houston 12 corner kicks to score. That’s Houston’s other effective tactic: Kinnear’s teams are never looking to dominate possession with lots of time spent on the ball. With Cameron insistently driving the attack forward, the Dynamo like to move forward quickly, always looking for chances at service. And if those turn into free kicks and corner kicks, well, that’s great.
On free kicks, Kinnear’s men do a nice job of varying their approaches: Some free kicks are taken quickly, some are served into dangerous spots, some are aimed right at goal, and some are moved a few feet (with a short pass) to change the angle.
How do you defend Houston’s set pieces? There’s really no defense, once the whistle is blown. So you have to cut down on the chances. Don’t foul! And look to clear crosses up and out rather than over the endline.
Then again, Cameron’s got a big throw-in, which the Dynamo are aiming these days toward Bruin and Weaver at the near post, looking for flicks to far-post runners. Boswell banged one of those flicks off the post two weeks ago. As if the Dynamo didn’t have enough happening on dead ball situations, it looks like they’ve got a little something more in the bag these days.