[MLS] A dismal season for the Dynamo stopped a run of nine straight playoff appearances that included four MLS Cups -- two in San Jose, two more in Houston -- dating back to 2001. Coach Dominic Kinnear faces a daunting task in rebuilding what had been a perennial championship contender.
A confluence of factors pushed Houston into the lower tier of MLS for the first time in a long time.
HOLES NOT FILLED. U.S. midfielders Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark left last winter for European teams; replacements Lovel Palmer and Anthony Obodai didn’t measure up, and emerging star Geoff Cameron missed most of the season with a torn PCL. A leaky defense more than doubled the goals it had conceded in setting an MLS record (23) in 2007 with many of the same players.
“I don’t want to point the finger just at the back line; we’re a team, back to front,” said forward Brian Ching, who counts himself among the veterans who didn’t get it done. “We lost a big player in Rico [Clark]. He made the job so much easier for the back line. That was a big hole we really couldn’t fill. The guys in the back line, they haven’t had their best years, but it was more of a team thing than a back-line thing.
“Geoff getting hurt early in the season, he never got into a rhythm. In the past things were more or less set, even if we had to deal with national-team callups and other stuff. But this year, without Rico and Stuart, and then Geoff going down, that was a factor in the middle that kind of hurt us.”
LATE SHOW. One of six teams to allow at least 10 goals in the final 15 minutes of games, Houston’s collapses were incredibly costly. A 4-3 loss to Kansas City Sept. 22 marked the fourth time, and second straight game, it had conceded a winner in stoppage time. It goes into the final game of the season against Seattle with a record of 8-15-6 and just 30 points; San Jose occupies the eighth and final playoff spot with 43 points and still has two games to play.
“Just look at how many goals we gave up in the last 15 minutes to lose the tie or lose the win,” said Richard Mulrooney. “We’d be right in the thick of it, we’d be just fine. I think the goal was if we got 40 or 41 points, we were going to get in, and looking at the table, even if we won our last four or five games I don’t think we would have got in.”
LACK OF LEADERS. Despite the presence of veterans such as Ching, midfielder Brad Davis, defenders Eddie Robinson and Bobby Boswell, and keeper Pat Onstad, the experience that had carried Houston through so many challenging games seldom materialized.
Ching says those veterans, including himself, deserves some blame for not sufficiently mentoring the younger players before and during games. “I just think that we had a lot of turnover and lost a lot of guys -- and maybe this is a confidence issue -- who knew how to close out games,” he said.
“I would say that’s just the inexperience of a team that has gone through a lot of turmoil. Having said that, being one of the older guys and one of the leaders the team, I didn’t do enough during practices to bring out that mental toughness, to teach that to the young guys. This year we had so many new faces, that some of the older guys could have done more to instill confidence and how to close out games.”
Kinnear believed the effort was always there but on too many occasions the performances didn’t match the task at hand and never could the Dynamo string together consistent, strong performances.
“All season long, we’ve worked hard,” said Kinnear. “The past two months we’ve played our best stuff. The beginning of the year we were inconsistent. We haven’t won two in a row. That’s a terrible stat to have in your pocket when you’re going through a season. We never went on that run that every team seems to go on.”
OUTLOOK. Midfield veteran Brian Mullan has been traded to Colorado for a younger Colin Clark, this is probably the end of competitive play for 42-year-old goalkeeper Pat Onstad, and a few other vets older than 30 could be headed elsewhere. The younger brigade – all 25 or younger -- includes Danny Cruz, Corey Ashe, Dominic Oduro, Andrew Hainault, Tally Hall and Cameron, and also teenager Francisco Navas Cobo.
“To say this team needs to be fully blown up, I don’t fully believe that,” says Mulrooney, who turns 34 next month. “But having said that, something’s not right.”