Inconsistencies in attack and the lineup prove to be Houston's downfall
Midnight struck on the Houston Dynamo's 2017 season with Thursday's 3-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the MLS Western Conference final -- making for a 5-0 aggregate defeat -- thus ending a Cinderella postseason for the Texans.
Overall, it was a very positive season in Space City. After three years of missing the playoffs, the Dynamo made a heralded return to November soccer in reaching the league's final four.
Still, there are several uncomfortable truths from the past nine months that Houston must confront and that coach Wilmer Cabrera, general manager Matt Jordan and team president Chris Canetti must resolve over the winter.
Lack of an alpha in attack
Houston's prowess in attack received acclaim during the season, and deservedly so. After mustering just 39 goals in 2016, Cabrera's men fired in 57 in 34 regular-season games. The Colombian boss transformed the Dynamo into one of the best counterattacking units in the league. When the Dynamo were breaking into space, there was a good chance a goal was coming.
The quartet of Erick Torres, Mauro Manotas, Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto spearheaded this effort, yet there is a nagging sense that the Dynamo never really had that alpha striker that is so badly needed in the big spot. Torres and Quioto, in particular, fell off at an inopportune time.
Torres hasn't scored since Aug. 23, while Quioto had just two goals since Aug. 19. Elis probably best resembles a lead striker, but injuries limited him to just 18 starts, although he did bag 10 goals in 2017. Of the four, Manotas was probably the steadiest and most reliable (10 goals) and at age 22 he has a lot of promise, however in terms of pure ability, Elis has more upside.
What was apparent in the postseason was that the Dynamo lacked that true finisher up front. The goals dried up for Houston, and its failure to finish scoring opportunities played a big part in coming up short. Imagine how different the first leg versus Seattle could have been if Elis smacks in that first-minute header. Instead, irony of all ironies, former Dynamo man Will Bruin makes good on his header to give Seattle a 2-0 lead that proves to be the nail in the Dynamo's coffin.
It will be interesting to see how the Dynamo approach their strike force this winter. Assuming the on-loan Elis does not return to Monterrey and continues with the club on a permanent basis, can the Honduran adapt to a more central role rather than out wide on the right and become that clinical finisher? That's probably the biggest question in Houston.
The road woes
It was the story that nagged the Dynamo until the end of July: When is undefeated-at-home Houston going to win a road game? It took until its 11th road trip to get all three points away from BBVA Compass Stadium, a 3-1 win at D.C. United on July 22. It would prove to be its lone road win until the 2-1 stunner in Portland in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals.
While their form away from home in the playoffs was good, the Dynamo were outplayed one too many times on the road in 2017; summer losses at Colorado, Vancouver and San Jose all come to mind. Too often the Dynamo would go down early in road games, and for a team that relies on counterattacking and prefers not to control possession, finding their way back in matches was difficult.
Things improved in late summer and fall with comeback draws at FC Dallas and New York City FC, plus the Portland win, so there is proof that this group can overcome an early deficit. They'll need to have the mentality in place when 2018 kicks off.
Lastly, the Dynamo used a whopping 37 different lineups over the course of their 34 regular season games and five playoff games. In one aspect that has been a positive, with all squad members feeling like each week they have a chance of seeing minutes, but for a team that had already experienced huge roster turnover during the winter -- 14 new players in all -- the lack of a consistent starting XI had to have exacted a toll during the regular season.
Speaking with reporters after the loss in Seattle on Thursday night, Cabrera said that the team's budget will not change, which probably means less roster shuffling this winter and perhaps more lineup stability in 2018.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .