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Defending champ Houston needs reinforcements
by Ridge Mahoney, February 13th, 2008 6:45AM



[MLS TEAM PREVIEWS] A memorable reunion it will be Wednesday night when two teams of Earthquakes play a preseason match in San Jose. But both teams will be short on players, familiar and otherwise.

The former Earthquakes, now the Houston Dynamo, play the 2008 expansion franchise at PAL Stadium, just a short walk from Spartan Stadium, where a decade of play concluded in December 2005, with a forced march southeast. The new Quakes are coached by Frank Yallop, who won two titles before leaving the old Quakes in charge of his assistant, Dominic Kinnear, winner himself of MLS crowns in his first two seasons with the Dynamo.

San Jose has only 12 players on its roster, which it will fill out with local players and trialists in matches against Houston Wednesday and Saturday. Yet Houston is still seeking replacements for Joseph Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua, who combined for 13 goals last season before jetting off to Austrian clubs. Next week, Houston heads to Hawaii for the Pan-Pacific Challenge, with a first-round match against Australian club Sydney FC, so time is short.

Stuck with the final pick in the last two rounds of the SuperDraft, Kinnear took midfielders Geoff Cameron and Jeremy Barlow. That's some slim pickin's, yet most of the rest of last year's championship squad is back and Kinnear addressed the loss of defender Ryan Cochrane in the expansion draft by landing defender Bobby Boswell in a trade with D.C. United.

Faced with four competitions this season -- MLS, U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions Cup, and SuperLiga -- Kinnear needs to be as shrewd as he was last year when he picked up Richard Mulrooney, Jaqua and Ngwenya during the season in trades.

"We lost two great players; two players who were pivotal for us last season," said forward Brian Ching, who must be feeling a bit lonely this preseason. "In Joe and Nate, it's going to be a big task to fill those shoes but I have all the faith in Dom and [assistant coach] John [Spencer] in the world. Look what they did last year. Look for them to make some moves this year to bolster our offense."

Houston is stacked, if not overstacked, in midfield. Ricardo Clark, who played in the first two U.S. games of 2008, and Mulrooney can be paired in the middle if Kinnear wishes to use Dwayne DeRosario up front, the position he often played during San Jose's 2001 and 2003 championship runs.

Brian Mullan, who signed a new contract in January, usually runs the right side; Brad Davis and U.S. under-23 Stuart Holden, who received his first national-team callup for the Mexico game, are two of the better left-sided midfielders in the league.

Patrick Ianni played well in spot duty last season and gives Kinnear another central defensive option to accompany Boswell and
Eddie Robinson, scorer of a dramatic goal in his national team debut, a 2-0 defeat of Sweden in January. Left back and team captain Wade Barrett (31) and right back Craig Waibel (32) are the steadiest pair of cornermen in the league.

(According to sources, Houston will get the rights to another outside back, former Quake Ramiro Corrales, via a transfer from Norwegian club SK Brann, but the Dynamo will pass him on to San Jose.)

Canadian Pat Onstad is 40 but played some of the sharpest soccer of his career last year in posting 11 shutouts and a 0.82 goals-allowed average.

That still leaves the vexing problem of what to do up front, where Ching returns after tying for the team lead with seven goals in 20 matches. A calf injury kept him out of MLS Cup 2007. Chris Wondolowski terrorized the reserve league last year with 13 goals but netted just once in 16 games (three starts) in MLS play.

The Dynamo set a league record last year by conceding just 23 goals. It might again struggle to score at the start of the season as it did last year: five goals in the first eight games. And it also might reel off an seven-game league shutout streak heading into the All-Star Game.


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