By Ridge Mahoney
For the past two seasons, midseason moves have propelled the Houston Dynamo to a spot in the MLS Cup, only to fall both times to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Stumbling again at the final hurdle hasn’t triggered a lot of change by head coach Dominic Kinnear, who guided his fifth-place team past Chicago, Eastern Conference winner Sporting Kansas City, and D.C. United in the playoffs after Ricardo Clark and Oscar Boniek Garcia had been incorporated into the mix.
The loss of U.S. international Geoff Cameron to Stoke City of the English Premier League cost the Dynamo very few points as the centerback pairing of Bobby Boswell and Jermaine Taylor took root. Will Bruin, who led the team with 12 goals during the regular season, hit four more in the playoffs. Brad Davis again finished among the league leaders with 12 assists.
Clark’s range meshed with the rugged industriousness of Adam Moffat, and Boniek Garcia’s slashing runs balanced the lofted balls and curling crosses supplied by Davis. The emergence of Bruin as a reliable target man who can also move well in the penalty area has lessened the burden on Brian Ching, who has decided to play again this season and was offered a role as assistant coach.
Kinnear has spent much of the 2013 preseason tinkering with those elements and sharpening his team for a faster start than in the past two campaigns. Along with its March 2 league opener against D.C. United, Houston faces Liga MX foe Santos Laguna in a Concacaf Champions League match three days later.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Winger Andrew Driver, signed on loan this week from Hearts, gives Kinnear an additional flank threat to that already posed by Davis and Garcia. Like Davis, he’s also left-footed, so Kinnear can slide either one of them into the middle and keep the other pushed outside. Driver also took set plays for Hearts. Trades brought in veteran centerback Eric Brunner, who replaces versatile Canadian defender Adrian Hainault, and ex-Rapids forward Omar Cummings. He gives another dose of pace along with that of Calen Carr. Central mid Je-Vaughn Taylor was traded to FC Dallas. SuperDraft pick Jason Johnson (No. 13 overall), who has already represented Jamaica at the senior level, and Homegrown signing Bryan Salazar – who wowed observers playing for the club’s U-18 academy team -- are battling Bruin and Ching for time at forward.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? A perennial contender and playoff constant, the Dynamo has probably its strongest roster since the championship teams of 2006 and 2007. Many of its top players are in their peak years yet there’s also a solid group of younger talents to push them for playing time. With a full season of home matches at BBVA Compass Stadium – the Dynamo opened 2012 with seven road games – it should be in the hunt for the conference title, not scraping through as a wild-card entry. It didn’t lose a game last year at BBVA. Englishman Giles Barnes, who played four games after coming aboard as a free agent in late August, gives Kinnear a central midfield supplement to Moffat and Clark.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Concacaf World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup could hit the Dynamo hard; it has several possible U.S. call-ups as well as Taylor for Jamaica and Garcia for Honduras. It won only one of 12 games last year after falling behind, which was a major reason for its fifth-place finish. Kofi Sarkodie took over for Hainault at right back late in the season and must show he can handle the job long-term.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Kinnear preaches a pressuring game, which can overrun opponents not conditioned to handle the searing Houston heat. Yet the speed of Garcia and Carr (who scored against Los Angeles in the title game before suffering a torn ACL), the poaching instincts of Bruin and Ching, and Davis’s serves over distance always present a counterattacking threat on the road. Clark’s energy and range are impressive. With David Beckham out of the league, Davis may rank as the best dead-ball server in MLS.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | Montreal | New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Vancouver