SBI MLS Season Preview: Houston Dynamo

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 Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com

By THOMAS FLOYD

By the end of the 2011 MLS season, Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear was pressing all the right buttons.

After spending the campaign's first six months tinkering with a lineup that could never quite find the right chemistry, Kinnear shifted midfielder Geoff Cameron to centerback after a 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 10. Houston promptly went a 4-0-2 tear to end the season and clinch the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, eventually knocking off Philadelphia and Kansas City en route to the MLS Cup final.

While the Los Angeles Galaxy ultimately felled Houston to claim the league title, the Dynamo walked away knowing they had the pieces in place to compete for the franchise's third championship. With Cameron anchoring the defense, Most Valuable Player runner-up Brad Davis manning the left flank and, after a tumultuous offseason, captain Brian Ching back in the fold up top, that same group is ready to make another run.

"Anytime you can keep the core of your team together, it's a huge thing," Davis said. "You've got your group of guys that knows what it takes, knows the work it took last year to get where we were, and they know the expectations heading into this year."

Here is a closer look at the Dynamo ahead of the 2012 MLS season:

HOUSTON DYNAMO SEASON PREVIEW

2011 FINISH: 12-9-13, 49 points (second in Eastern Conference)

KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Macoumba Kandji, M Nathan Sturgis, F Colin Rolfe, GK Erich Marscheider

KEY LOSSES: M Danny Cruz, F Carlo Costly, D Hunter Freeman, D Eddie Robinson, F Jason Garey, M Francisco Navas Cobo

Going into this season, Houston returns 10 of its 11 starters from the MLS Cup final. And the one player who exited — winger Danny Cruz — had been filling in on the right side for the injured Colin Clark, who does return.

"Experience can be important, knowing how the league is, knowing what the coaches expect or what the team expects from each other," Kinnear said. "So that's not to say we'll go through the season undefeated and beat everybody 5-0, but the continuity is always important."

This past offseason, however, was far from a straightforward affair for the Dynamo. Centerback Bobby Boswell, who formed such an effective partnership with Cameron down the stretch last year, was initially listed as available on the club's re-entry draft list before agreeing to a new deal to stay in Houston.

But more infamously, Ching spent the majority of his offseason as a Montreal Impact player after the club unexpectedly plucked the veteran striker in November's expansion draft. Following months in limbo, during which he suited up for Montreal as the team kicked off preseason despite threats he would retire, Ching was traded back to Houston last month for a conditional draft pick.

With the Dynamo opening their long-awaited soccer-specific home, BBVA Compass Stadium, on May 12, it only seems appropriate Ching, who has been with Houston for all six of the franchise's seasons, will be poised to lead his team onto the field for that historic occasion.

"I don't know if there was one player who deserves to be a Houston Dynamo player walking into that new stadium more than he does," Kinnear said. "He deserves to be a part of that, and I'm glad that we reached an agreement to have him here."

Aside from the Ching saga, though, Houston has been fairly quiet on the transaction front. Nathan Sturgis, picked up in a trade with Toronto, will add depth in central midfield behind starters Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo. And forward Macoumba Kandji, acquired from Colorado, will compete with Calen Carr, Cam Weaver and Will Bruin for the starting slot alongisde Ching.

Heading into their March 11 opener at Chivas USA — a game played at the Home Depot Center, the site of Houston's MLS Cup defeat — the Dynamo are monitoring the progress of Davis, who missed the league title game after suffering a torn quadriceps in the Eastern Conference final. Although he was limited in preseason, Davis did play the full 90 minutes this past weekend in Orlando, Fla., in a Disney Pro Soccer Classic loss to Dallas.

"It's been tough in the games actually, just trying to get my feet back underneath me after being out for so long, but I think things are coming together well," Davis said. "The last game was good. I got into the attack quite a bit, got some opportunities. Hopefully I'll keep progressing in the right direction."

Before Houston debuts BBVA Compass Stadium, the team will embark on a seven-game road trip to start the season. After going just 2-6-9 away from home last year, the Dynamo are looking at the trying stretch as a chance to prove themselves as an improved road team, Davis said.

And once the new stadium does open its doors, Houston will be more than ready to embrace a place it can truly call home for the first time in organization history.

"It's tough for me to put into words," Davis said. "It's still surreal, driving by it every day, knowing it's going to be here very soon. I know the rest of the team is amped and geared and ready to go and get this season started, and especially that May 12 opener."

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23 Responses to SBI MLS Season Preview: Houston Dynamo

  1. Dussie says:

    Houston’s forward corps is very lackluster. Bum knee Ching, inconsistent Kandji, second year rookie Will Bruin, ineffective Weaver and Carr.

    Wow I hope we sign someone good during the summer transfer window.

  2. gd says:

    Houston never signs anyone, last year was luck

  3. riproar says:

    I really hope Bruin can bag some early goals, get up the confidence and have a solid season. Not many goals for the orange in preseason against MLS competition (although I do think Houston was willing to experiment a bit more in the MickeyMouse games). Defense looks solid, just need a few of those balls to go in the net.

  4. Dussie says:

    We have signed people but they haven’t lived up to the hype. Especially our DP experiment Landin, and Carlo Costly.

    With the stadium I suspect we will at least try to get a DP quality forward.

  5. The Imperative Voice says:

    The more serious end of the preseason saw lackluster play and problems scoring. But the Dynamo will be able to ease into the season with Chivas and SJ, which IMO will paper over issues for a while. First week opponent Chivas in particular looks to have gone backwards from a pretty bad team already.

    That being said, standing pat on the roster and bringing back Ching may result in a repeat of last year’s late rush, though attempting a summer revamp would be complicated by the added CCL fixture burden. Not as easy to play catchup playing twice a week.

    I expect Kandji to flourish once kicking in anger begins, and I prefer to tactical mix of forwards to last year because the “banger” element is paired with two “speed” players. That being said, I’d have preferred to see some DP stud rather than give Ching a victory lap. And even a $200K Ching renders more difficult re-structuring the team in the summer.

    I’m not a fan of the defensive speed level but I think it’s solid enough for the playoffs, if not a title. Where Houston badly needs upgrades is the midfield. I think MLS Cup underlined the heavy burden on Davis to set the table here, and I fear the Davis/Clark theorized pairing on the wings is, while technically nice, very slow for defensive purposes. While Cruz was sloppy as anything, his speed (with Carr’s) stretched defenses. I actually think the forward pool is OK but that we might lack for service to those forwards and as a result be too negative and mediocre.

  6. The Imperative Voice says:

    Bruin should be a sub while we see if he develops. DC looked awful the day of his hat trick so I discount it beyond saying it shows a flash of talent. Thing is he played 28 games last year — injuries or not — and scored in just 3 distinct fixtures. So what I’d like to see him do is come in late with Carr and give teams consistent heck.

  7. DynaMatt says:

    I don’t have high hopes for our forwards, which could make for a tough season in an improved East. Hopefully a trade will be made, or Kinnear can find a DP that doesn’t bomb in Houston.

    The midfield and defense should do well enough to keep Houston in games, but when CCL comes around in the fall will the team have enough depth especially with its injury prone current cast.

  8. The Imperative Voice says:

    All due respect but Landin and Costly were known risks coming in. Landin was an unproven prospect and Costly has a history of showing better for Honduras than his clubs.

    IMO we tend to blame the player (for being himself?) when in fact management is trying to thread a needle of acquiring rental-type cheaper players on loans, signings with easy outs and backloaded compensation, and other commitment-lite lower cost structurings. And the irony is that as tenative as signing Landin felt to me, it seems to have instead confirmed to the team the risks of actually plonking down money on a forward.

    I think the bigger need area is CM (followed by RM) to set the table for everyone — I’d like to see Camargo back to DM and Moffat watching games from the side. There’s so much veteran F talent in town (solid but not great) I’m not sure I see a bunch of forward reloading without also shipping a non-Ching back out of town.

  9. Air Jordanz says:

    When AEG sells its stake in the Dynamo, that will change.

    I hope.

  10. The Imperative Voice says:

    It’s gotta be a proven, Henry-, Keane-, or Boyd-type DP, none of this halfway Landin bull. We get what we pay for, and proven Fs command a significant salary.

    I mean, I understood Landin cost a bunch in some loan fee but his salary was actually tiny. The incongruity of the two ought to have been a tipoff something was amiss.

  11. Air Jordanz says:

    If Clark can stay healthy, he has the tools to elevate the RM position over the level it was at last season.

    Anyone else remember him dribbling past several players into the box and nabbing the equalizer against FCD in their first matchup last season?

  12. riproar says:

    Kandji and Ching up top for now? I imagine that is as good of a place to start as any, but with the extra games I still think we need Bruin or that DP at F to show up.

  13. The Imperative Voice says:

    I see it as you do. I just worry that a “MLS depth chart” I saw the other day foresaw a first line of Ching and Bruin, which to me sounds too slow. When we tried Bruin and Weaver last year offense ground to a halt. This team has always done better with a balance of size and speed as opposed to two back to goal forwards at the same time.

    Don’t get me wrong, Bruin has promise, but I think target forwards take longer to either sink or swim and considering I think 3 goals from DC was a fluke night, I think he needs to prove his worth on a more weekly basis, winning games late. If we depend on him to start I think it will be frustrating for all concerned.

  14. The Imperative Voice says:

    I like it when Clark does the very sort of thing you suggest but he has a tendency to disappear for games at a time, and the late season run coincided with Cruz’s healthy involvement. I’m not really a Cruz fan but I do think we can use more speed and that Clark is kind of a technical non-athlete like Davis on the other side, and that there’s only so many slow, technical players we can throw on one field before we turn into a very good men’s league team without the speed to cope with some MLS teams.

  15. Pepe says:

    Dude- Bruin is really fast. If you’ve watched him play a bunch, you know he can run almost as fast as Ashe. Just because he can play as a more target guy doesn’t mean he has Cam Weaver mobility.

  16. Kishan Jeter says:

    What everyone here fails to realize is that signing one DP doesn’t necessarily dictate anything. The Galaxy couldn’t do it with just Landon, so they added Beckham. That still didn’t work so they added Keane. It took 3 DP’s to win an MLS Cup. Houston won two Cups but that was in ’06 and ’07 but the league only had like 14 teams. There’s what, like 19 teams now?

    Houston needs more money to acquire better players. I love Ching but he’s to brittle, I like Bruin but he’s still young, Carr hasn’t produced enough, Weaver reminds me of Nate Jaqua but not as clumsy, Kanji is unproven with this team, and Rolfe is a rookie. But those are just forwards. Our strikers rarely score, our midfield and defense creates all the goals anyway. That’s why Houston is hard to play. Teams aren’t sure who to guard cause strikers are slow and rarely score.

    We need a strong attacking midfielder, push Camargo to defensive midfield, and acquire a strong right midfielder who’s a champion like Zinedine Zidane.

  17. Casey says:

    Hopefully they don’t grow those fugly playoff beards again.

  18. The Imperative Voice says:

    I see Bruin as a hustler not a speed guy. I’d say the same of Ashe. IMO Ashe has slightly above average speed — though I have seen him get burned enough not to over-state it like he’s Oduro — and Bruin is just an average runner. At MLS level an average runner will be draped by his defender unless they are Boyens-slow. When the Dynamo play Ching/ Weaver/ and/or Bruin as a pair, teams can sit on the frontline and play up. We then struggle to get the ball out of our half and eventually into the final third where we can be dangerous off crosses.

    In contrast, when we’ve had an Oduro, Kamara, or of late Carr (or Kandji), the speed player stretches the field, the defenders have to back off and honor the speed, and Ching gets room to operate rather than a high-line defender jumping over his back at half field. The ball magically gets downfield and we become productive.

    I’ve always felt this team was better with a mix of tactical abilities, Ching/Dalglish, Ngwenya/Jaqua, than when it’s two bangers like Landin/Ching, Weaver/Bruin, Weaver/Ching. Because the whole premise of Davis’ wide play relies on us getting the ball down to the final third by combining with the forwards and everyone else. If the ball sticks in our half we start hoofing it out and lack the speed usually to get to the longballs.

  19. Andy says:

    Let’s just sign Bedoya when he gets cut in a couple days from Rangers. Doubt we could get him because I don’t think we’re too high on the allocation list, but who knows if he’ll even try to come back. (He should though)

  20. Will says:

    It’s a shame there will be no DP to open the stadium. What is going on Golden Boy Promotions???

  21. Rob says:

    Costly was good….helped lead the team to the final

  22. Ron says:

    Bedoya is nice, but Houston needs to be thinking big-time DP….

  23. The Imperative Voice says:

    All due respect but there are some decisions being made like bringing Ching back that absorbed salary that could have been used to acquire DP-level talent. He did take a paycut to come back but no Ching at all would have been enough cap room for a DP.

    Under the early 1 or 2 DP systems I might have agreed with you, and there was no history of DP teams winning. But if you continue expanding DPs to 3 or more, and lower the cap hit, you start being able to staff more of your 11 with highly paid talent.

    Put differently, as long as LA has a defense even our equal (and of late it’s been better….though it may be different without Gonzo this season), I’m not sure we can beat them when they have Keane and Donovan and we have Ching/Bruin/Kandji. We’ve lost to them twice in three playoff years without scoring. Though I think the on-hand talent is OK enough to get us into the playoffs if we have grander aspirations I think we need a stud forward and CM.

    I think there’s a myth we don’t need forward scoring here but memory serves we rode to the titles on the backs of Ching, Dalglish, and Ngwenya. During those same seasons we struggled when trying to rely on Cerritos, Moreno, and Wondo. The forward line needs to be productive for us to win.