Houston professional soccer has not had a good week. The national press and fans around the country have spewed a lot of negative comments about the poor attendance at both the Quarterfinal and Semifinal MLS playoff rounds and the bad field conditions at BBVA Compass Stadium for both matches.
Last night the Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers played to a drab 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. The second-leg aggregate goal playoff series concludes next Sunday in at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon (time TBD).
The opportunities for both sides were few and far between. Both teams combined for only 4 shots on goal. The poor field conditions hampered play and Portland was forced to replace 3 starters in the first 60 minutes due to injuries. Penalties, called, reversed and not called, were the main story.
VAR is truly a mixed bag
FIFA is currently in the process of a trialing Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology in various leagues and tournaments. Starting last summer, MLS became one league that willingly adopted the technology and it came into play last night for the first time in an MLS playoff game. In the 30th minute Dynamo forward Alberth Elis was brought down in the box and referee Mark Geiger pointed to the penalty spot. Shortly after the call he signaled that VAR review would take place and eventually the call was overturned because it was determined that a foul had not occurred. Looking at the call in real time in the stadium I personally thought the penalty was soft, but could understand why it was called. I did not understand why the call was overturned because it was not obvious to me or on the part of broadcasters on TV replays that the judgement call made on the field was incorrect. To be fair, Portland could have easily made a case that Tyler Deric should have been called for a penalty when he brought down a Timbers player in the box 10 minutes later. But again, for whatever reasons, the judgement of the referee on the field was that it wasn’t a penalty and this time the replay official let it go. The conventional wisdom among fans seems to be that somehow “fairness” came into play….that neither referee wanted to award a penalty to the Timbers shortly after a call for the Dynamo was overturned.
I have no idea whether any of this entered the minds of the referees when making the decisions, but it certainly calls into question whether we are truly crossing the slippery slope of how VAR will be used in the future. I fully support the technology, but wish it was only used in clear situations where the on-field referees got it wrong: clear offsides call, blatant dives, goals crossing or not crossing the line. To their credit neither Dynamo Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera or Alberth Elis used the VAR call as an excuse for the Dynamo not getting a win last night.
The Dynamo left themselves with a tough road to hoe
Regardless of how big an aggregate goal lead the Dynamo took into Portland, the team faced a daunting challenge next Sunday. The Dynamo road woes are well known. They only won one game on the road all year and were blown out in the second half during their only trip to Portland (4-2 loss) earlier this year. It will be very interesting to see what kind of lineup and tactical approach Cabrera adopts in this match. I personally would like to see them come out and go for it, like they did in the first half of the game in Portland in Week 3. This half produced one of the best goals of the season from the Dynamo in my estimation.
Portland faces injury concerns in this match, but regardless, the Dynamo will have a very difficult time bunkering in and attempting to get a single goal on the counter, especially since they are level on aggregate and Diego Valeri will be on the field. I hope they don’t adopt this strategy.
The attendance and the field were both embarrassing
I have been a Houston Dynamo season ticket holder since Day 1 and lived there for 10 years before moving to the Hill Country. I truly wish that professional soccer is ultimately wildly successful in Houston and consider myself to be as big a supporter of the soccer community there as you will find. It pains me to see the trash that the Dynamo and local soccer fans are taking over the poor attendance at the two playoff matches and poor field conditions in the last week. Attendance last night was an “announced” 15,169. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson sent a Tweet out during the first half that spared no bones about what he thought about the field conditions. The Tweet was subsequently withdrawn and instead this more back-handed Tweet was sent later:
Sports Illustrated Grant Wahl, who expressed his displeasure Thursday night too, continued his tirade last night.
There are a lot more like that, but the point has been made. I agree with Grant Wahl that the MLS playoff format has to be changed. There are some MLS markets where midweek playoff games, with no time to sell tickets in advance, will work. Portland is one that would….Houston isn’t. At a minimum the league needs to go to weekend single elimination games in the Conference quarterfinals and semifinals, played at the location of the highest seed. There are also more ambitious format changes out there that need to be considered. Sticking with Grant Wahl, building on an idea from SI’s Brian Straus, he has an intriguing proposal:
As for the field conditions, Timbers coach Caleb Porter had this to say on MLSsoccer.com:
“The field’s very difficult to really put much together and a couple of the chances we had kind of jumped up,” said Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. “Nagbe’s [shot] is a good example. On a good pitch, he’s burying that; [but] it jumps up on him. They had a couple, too, shots that bobble up on you. You’ve got two of the best attacking teams in Houston and ourselves and neither team was really able to generate and play the way they wanted to play.”
There are a lot of reasons why the field was in such poor condition for the playoff games during the last week and it is not like this is news. The stadium field took a lot of heat last December during the NCAA Men’s College Cup tournament. This article from Corey Roepken in the Houston Chronicle explains a lot of the challenges the climate presents for turf in Houston.
To their credit, the BBVA Compass Stadium field crew did there best between games to improve the conditions. Obviously it didn’t work. A major hurricane in the last few months, followed by constant play (soccer and football by Texas Southern) hasn’t helped. Regardless of the circumstances, the field was completely unacceptable and the stadium and Dynamo staff need to figure out how to solve this problem for a potential Conference Final, if the Dynamo are so fortunate, or in the future. I don’t like artificial turf in soccer, but it has to be seriously considered as a possible option here if these issues can’t be resolved soon.
As it is I will close with pictures of the stadium attendance and field conditions last night.