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Houston Dynamo defense stands strong as attack searches for its spark

The Dynamo welcome the Montreal Impact to BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday night looking for a spark that will set their attack alight.

After having one of the most porous defenses in MLS last year, the side has tightened up under new head coach Owen Coyle so far this season. Only three goals have been conceded in five games, with individual errors undermining solid overall displays.

Those matches have produced two Dynamo goals, so the team is looking to boost its productivity — starting this Saturday (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) against opponents that have previously struggled in Houston.

The Dynamo won both home games against Montreal last year and knocked the Quebec side out of the playoffs in 2013, though Coyle is respectful of their potential. The Impact reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday. They lost 4-2 on the night to Costa Rican club Alajuelense but won through on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate result, becoming the second MLS team to make it to the showpiece event.

While Coyle is pleased with the defensive performances, he told reporters “it’s important as well that we find that little spark in the final third. We’ve certainly had enough shots at goal, enough possession, it’s just getting that little spark to turn that possession into clear-cut chances and goals. We know that will fall into place, but like anything else we want that happening sooner rather than later and that’s something we’re purposely working on each day in training.”

Coyle liked much of what he saw in the game against Seattle Sounders last Saturday, a 1-0 road defeat that hinged on a moment’s carelessness that let in Obafemi Martins for a dazzling dribble and shot. “I thought the players’ application was terrific. I think it’s fair to say, because we’re always striving for higher standards, we could have done better probably with that final pass in the final third but there’s no getting away from the level of play,” said Coyle.

Defender Raúl Rodríguez will be missing against Montreal after he came off with a head wound in Seattle. Coyle said that the injury required over 20 stitches and was about one-and-a-half inches deep.

David Horst came off the bench and helped keep Seattle’s dangerous forward line quiet, while, making his third successive start, midfielder Nathan Sturgis impressed against one of his former clubs. “I think we played pretty well except for in the final third, that’s our last missing piece right now — get sharper, be a little bit more dangerous going forward… it’s something we’re working on in training, something we’re working on tactically. It’s part that, part guys just getting on the same page,” he said.

The well-traveled 27-year-old scored the equalizer in last month’s 1-1 tie with the LA Galaxy, the club where he began his MLS career in 2006. “Houston’s given me a great opportunity to play so I’m just trying to take advantage of it,” said Sturgis, who made 16 appearances for the now-defunct Chivas USA last year and was a Dynamo player in 2012. He’s also featured for the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC.

“It’s been good to get in the last couple of games and get my fitness up and feel like I’m getting up to game speed, which is good, and now hopefully we can start getting some good results,” he said. [Coyle’s] given us some freedom. In the spot that he’s put me it’s my responsibility to hold and keep the defensive shape but he allows us to get forward at times.”

For DaMarcus Beasley, collective responsibility is key to success. “It’s a work in progress for the whole team, not just one side of the ball. We attack as a team, we defend as a team,” the left back said. “The season’s still new - but at the same time it’s five games in. Owen knows us now, we understand what he wants from us, we’ve just got to put it all together.”

Beasley returned to MLS last July after a decade away and said that he’s now feeling comfortable with the league’s challenges. “I know what it’s all about,” he said. “I see tape, I get a sense of how [opponents] played before I play against them. The league has grown leaps and bounds since I was here last with Chicago. I’m very prepared and looking forward to the rest of the season.”

Aged 32, he said his preparation for Dynamo games is helped by his decision last December to retire from international duty after a stellar U.S. career that saw him accumulate 121 caps and play in four World Cups. He has started all five MLS games this year, though came off against the Galaxy.

“Knocks like I had in L.A., I was only out for four or five days. If I’d have gone on an eight-hour trip to Europe it could have been a lot worse. That part of it, conserving my body to make sure I’m fit and available for Owen to pick is very important to me,” he said.

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.