SOCCER MATTERS

MLS All-Star match far from “meaningless” for Dynamo’s Elis

Alberth Elis has nine goals and eight assists in 21 league appearances with the Houston Dynamo this season. Houston Dynamo

Alberth Elis has made no secret of his ambitions to play in Europe and Wednesday night could provide him the one-way ticket he needs to get there. The 22-year-old Houston Dynamo goal scorer will team up with other top players in Major League Soccer to face European giant Juventus in front of 70,000 plus at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and millions around the world.

As it is any league, the MLS All-Star game is an exhibition match that serves more as a marketing event than a contributor to the on-field product. A few of the league’s coaches – including the coach of this year’s All-Star team – have expressed their discontent with where it falls in the schedule and some of the league’s biggest stars, like 19-year veteran Zlatan Ibrahimović, have chosen to forego appearing in the match.

For a young player like Elis, however, this platform could be his best opportunity to make the jump across the pond to play among the world’s elite. An opportunity he cannot afford to waste.

Working towards the spotlight

Getting to this stage has been anything but easy for the Dynamo’s Honduran playmaker – but there’s no doubt he’s earned it. Arriving in 2017 as a loan player, Elis made an immediate impact by scoring 10 goals to help the Dynamo to their best offensive year and scored the game-winner to give the club its first playoff win since 2013.

This year he has doubled down on the work ethic, resembling a younger version of fellow Houston resident J.J. Watt. Elis is all but assured to be named the team’s MVP, with 13 games still left on the schedule, and could end up on the short list for league MVP if the Dynamo make the playoffs. 

Given that the All-Star roster is announced in June, Elis had to make his case in the first half of the season. He opened the season by being a driving force in every Dynamo goal in a 4-0 win over Atlanta United – the same club who is hosting the All-Star game on Wednesday.

Atlanta Head Coach Gerardo Martino, known worldwide for his time as the manager of FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team, selected Elis to his first All-Star appearance as part of his coach’s picks. Surely the first impression helped but “La Panterita” (the little panther) made his case with his consistency, notching either a goal or assist in 10 of Houston’s first 12 games.

He is second in goals and assists for the team, with a good game or two separating him from the lead. He is also third in shots on target in MLS, a category he led for much of the season - all indicators that he is worthy of being amongst the league’s best.

“When I came to this league, it was one of the goals that I set, to try to always be among the best and thank God things are going well for me.”

-  Alberth Elis on his selection to the All-Star team

Dynamo not happy – but there’s a bigger picture

“As a coach, I do not want Alberth Elis to go to the All-Star game or it does not benefit me. Not because I don’t want Alberth Elis to shine. Alberth Elis is very happy, he should go and any player would want to go but the reality is that for Alberth Elis, it’s not beneficial to go. For the Houston Dynamo, it’s not good that he goes because our calendar – whoever made it wasn’t interested in the Houston Dynamo. So it’s a heavy schedule, we’re in plain summer and Elis would be playing eight matches in 25 days. That’s not good for Alberth Elis.

Dynamo Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera

If it were up to the Houston Dynamo, Elis wouldn’t be playing on Wednesday night. To be fair, that can be said of virtually any team around the league but MLS has made it a point to make sure their marquee players show up - or face a suspension for the following league game. 

The Dynamo simply can’t afford to have their best player miss out a game during the playoff race, and that’s understandable, but there’s a bigger picture to see here. Having a player on this stage brings an added media attention to the club and helps increase the brand in order to recruit future players.

Cabrera focuses heavily on the here-and-now but the Dynamo, under his tenure, have shown their limitations and are doomed to to be no more than a playoff participant without a larger budget. Given that the team is still playing catchup in the development department and the ownership group have yet to show the pocketbook to compete with the league’s big spenders, the biggest influx of cash short-term will have to come from profiting off the assets they currently have.

A move to Europe for Elis would benefit both the future of the player and the team. Unfortunately, there’s a short window for the team to profit on their reported $2.5 million investment in the Honduran – so time’s ticking.

Why it’s a can’t miss opportunity

“One as a forward always wants to score goals, this match is not going to be the exception… I hope to do well and represent my team and my country well.”

-  Alberth Elis on the 2018 MLS All-Star Game

The harsh truth is, the spotlight in MLS lies in markets like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle, to name a few, because of what clubs in those cities have done to garner mainstream attention. The Dynamo have failed to draw the attention within their city – never mind, nationwide - despite being located in the country’s fourth largest city and a top ten media market.

Elis’ nationality also bears him a similar struggle on the international stage. Honduras was unsuccessful in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia after being eliminated in a playoff against Australia. The World Cup would have put him in the eye of the storm this past summer with an opportunity to shine in front of major European scouts. 

So after grief in missing out on a childhood dream, Elis put Russia in the backburner and focused all his energy on the 2018 MLS season. If he impresses against Juventus, who have the eyes of the world on them after signing Cristiano Ronaldo this summer, I’d say Elis is as good as gone next year.

Given the Dynamo’s uncertainty in making the playoffs in 2018, this may be the biggest stage Elis gets until next summer and by then he’ll be a year older.

The 2018 MLS All-Star Game will air nationally tonight at 6:30 p.m. CT on ESPN (English) and UniMás (Spanish).

Follow on Twitter: @victoraraiza

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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