A disastrous first half in which Houston looked to be in fifth gear while Atlanta United was in first saw the Dynamo run away from the Five Stripes 4-0 on Saturday to open the MLS season.
Houston scored four goals in the first half – more than any team scored in any game against Atlanta United last season -- while the visitors received three yellow cards and saw Leandro Gonzalez Pirez leave with an injury in the worst 45 minutes played by the team in its short history. Four minutes into the second half, Miguel Almiron missed a penalty kick.
It was that kind of day.
The Dynamo’s goals were scored by Andrew Wenger, Philippe Senderos, Mauro Manotas and Darwin Ceren. Atlanta United will host D.C. United at 2 p.m. March 11 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
With left midfielder Ezequiel Barco out with an injury, manager Gerardo Martino elected to move Almiron from the middle to the left, put Julian Gressel in the attacking midfielder role and pair Darlington Nagbe with Chris McCann as the defensive midfielders. The decision didn’t work. Nagbe didn’t influence the game at all during the decisive first half, and Almiron and Josef Martinez sometimes got in each other’s way. Almiron did play on the left a few games last season and a few times this season, but he didn’t look comfortable. Gressel played almost exclusively on the right during the preseason in place of the injured Hector Villalba.
The other decision made by Martino to pair Jeff Larentowicz with Gonzalez Pirez in the center of the defense also didn’t work. With McCann playing in front of them, the faster Houston players ran right through or past the center of Atlanta United’s defense.
Houston grabbed its lead in the fifth minute thanks to miscommunication between Gonzalez Pirez and goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Gonzalez Pirez expected Guzan was going to come way out of his box to claim a long clearance by Houston on the right side. Guznn didn’t. As Gonzalez Pirez waited and tried to hold off Alberth Elis, the Dynamo speedster blew past him, ran onto the ball and crossed it for Andrew Wenger to tap in.
Houston increased its lead to 2-0 in the 24th minute on a header by Philippe Senderos. A turnover by Hector Villalba led to a counter-attack by the Dynamo. The shot was pushed away by Guzan, which led to the corner that led to Senderos’ goal. Houston led the league in set-piece goals last season.
Three minutes later, Houston’s lead reached 3-0 on a goal by Mauro Manotas. The Dynamo used two short passes to easily go through the center of Atlanta United’s defense.
Gonzalez Pirez earned a yellow card in the 32nd minute by stepping in front of Elis to prevent a breakaway. Less than a minute later, Gonzalez Pirez started grabbing his lower back/hip area. He sat down on the pitch and was examined by team trainers.
Gonzalez Pirez came back onto the field, but was still grabbing his hip as he tried to run. Houston kept up its pressure, forcing him to clear a ball. He fell down after doing so and stayed down, forcing the trainers to come out again. Michael Parkhurst was subbed in for him in the 39th minute.
Houston’s lead grew to 4-0 on a goal by Ceren in injury time to wrap up the first half. Defending another corner, Guzan came out of the goal and palmed the long cross back into play, where Ceren jumped on the loose ball for the goal.
Atlanta United looked as it was going to pull a goal back in the 49th minute when Almiron stepped to the spot to take a penalty kick. His shot slammed off the post and back across the goal. Martinez earned the penalty off a tackle by goalkeeper Chris Seitz.