When the Houston Dynamo take the field on the average MLS matchday, there is normally little guesswork needed in regards to what formation Dominic Kinnear will use. The veteran head coach has been a devotee of the traditional 4-4-2 for most of his coaching career.
However, with teams around the league going away from the standard 4-4-2, Kinnear has widened the Dynamo's repertoire to combat the changes.
“We’re mostly a 4-4-2 team, as most people know,” Kinnear said this week. “But sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to try and match up with some teams.”
Opponents such as Sporting Kansas City (who often play three forwards) and FC Dallas (who stack their midfield) have seen success this year playing what many feel is a more attacking formation. The change does not always pay off, as Toronto FC – which has moved away from the 4-4-2 under first-year coach Aaron Winter – has found out.
Houston has varied its formation and seen moderate success, both against both Kansas City in a 1-1 home draw on July 16, and at Dallas last weekend in a 1-0 win. With teams switching to formations that give them an advantage in certain parts of the field, the Dynamo know they have to adapt.
“When you play against a 4-3-3, you can be outnumbered in midfield, and you don’t want to concede that territory,” Kinnear said. “You certainly don’t want to do that for the better part of the game, so if you can match that up, it makes that battle more competitive.”
While changing the formation may be more about matching the other team’s personnel, there is also an effect on Houston’s attack. Built to run out of the 4-4-2 with target forwards and wing play, Houston players are forced to pick up the tactics involved in playing with different personnel groupings. The switch often means players have to change the way they approach the game.
“For me, when we play the 4-5-1, I don’t see the ball as much, and my job is more about cutting and movements off the ball,” said veteran forward Brian Ching. “Sometimes it’s a move to play to our strengths to use a different formation. ... We do that to get the best out of our personnel and based on the matchups we’re playing against.”
With the results from the formation shifts mostly positive, Kinnear understands the importance of being able to adapt. While the changes can offer different styles, do not expect a change in overall philosophy any time soon.
“I’d imagine we’re a 4-4-2 team on most days,” Kinnear said.
But it's nice to have options.
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.