If the Houston Dynamo midfield looked different this past Saturday night, that’s because it was. Against the Philadelphia Union, the Dynamo shifted from a flat four man midfield set up to a diamond formation, with Giles Barnes playing higher on the field than the returning Ricardo Clark.
Why shift to the different formation? Conventional wisdom suggests it’s to get more bodies in the attacking area of the field. The setup allows Barnes, in this case, to play in an advanced position and closer to the forwards while Clark provides a shield for the defense and a link between the lines.
To do that, you have to have a midfielder who can cover a lot of ground. Clark, who made his first start since August 17 after an injury lay-off, fits that mold very well.
“I think having Ricardo back brings a different kind of athleticism into the team,” Barnes said. “Everyone knows that’s one of his strongest points. His athleticism to get in and around people and to get box-to-box and get winning tackles.
“That allows the midfielders to get a little more forward. Everyone’s got defending to do. We copy off Ricardo. He’s kind of a mouthpiece behind our movement.”
Barnes may be onto something. In Clark's absence, the Dynamo allowed 12 goals in four games. When he returned to the lineup, the Dynamo recorded a clean sheet and a 1-0 win over Philadelphia – Clark, of course, netting the lone goal.
It’s a spot Clark’s used to playing. In Houston’s first seasons, Clark was the player behind the likes of midfielders Dwayne De Rosario and Stuart Holden, giving them license to roam the field and create in the attack. It’s that same knack that he brings to the formation as the club experiments with things after the departure of Adam Moffat to the Seattle Sounders.
For Barnes, the shift means a different focus and set of responsibilities shifting back into midfield from the forward position.
“Even when I do play up top I try to fill in and help the midfield out,” Barnes said. “I suppose it’s just getting forward a little more when you’re playing off of Will [Bruin] but it was more keeping my defensive shape and trying to play from there and trying to assess the situation.”
The underlying theme to the switch is that the Dynamo have options in midfield. With the likes of Barnes and Clark, along with Brad Davis and Boniek García, Houston can configure its usual midfield four in a number of ways, giving head coach Dominic Kinnear options in how to attack their opponent.
Whether or not it results in more of what was seen Saturday – a shutout and a win – is yet to be answered. But the hope is there.
“We’ll see what we do on Saturday,” Kinnear said. “Obviously having Boniek back adds another element to the attack. We’ll see what happens in the middle of midfield.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.