Midfield concerns threaten Dynamo's dominance
2009 record and finish: 13-8-9 (tied for first in Western Conference), lost in conference finals.
Key additions: D/M Adrian Serioux, M Francisco Navas Cobo, M Lovel Palmer (pending)
Key losses: M Ricardo Clark, M Stuart Holden
Three questions facing this team:
1. Can the Dynamo successfully retool their midfield?
When Houston traded two-time MLS Cup MVP Dwayne De Rosario before the 2009 campaign, replacing him was viewed as the toughest of obstacles. Yet in 2010, the Dynamo face an even bigger challenge. Central midfielders Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden both played out their respective contracts and moved to overseas clubs, leaving manager Dominic Kinnear with a gargantuan hole to fill in the center of the park.
Fortunately for Kinnear, he has some options. The Houston manager has long suggested that Geoff Cameron's best position is in midfield, and it looks as though last year's Best XI defender will get his chance to shine in that role this season.
But perhaps the bigger question is: Who will partner him in the center? Richard Mulrooney has logged heavy minutes in the middle during his MLS career and remains a sharp passer, but after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee last season, there is some doubt as to whether he still has enough mobility to play the position. The recent reacquisition of Adrian Serioux could see him assume a central role, and Jamaican Lovel Palmer, who as of this writing is in negotiations with MLS, is another possible solution.
Although these options provide plenty of steel, it remains to be seen whether Houston can make up for the loss in attacking guile created by Holden's departure.
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2. Can Luis Angel Landin live up to his designated player status?
As questions abound in midfield, there are also plenty of nagging doubts about Landin. The former Pachuca forward was clearly out of shape when he arrived in August of last year, and the thought was that an offseason workout regimen would fix that problem. Yet when Landin arrived for training camp this season, the Dynamo coaches were alarmed to discover that the forward hadn't shed one pound.
Compounding matters has been a string of niggling injuries, including a case of whiplash suffered in a minor car accident, that have slowed his quest to achieve full fitness. Add it all up, and Landin's MLS tenure is hurtling toward "bust" status.
Of course, time remains to turn things around, and given Landin's undeniable skill on the ball and ability to bring others into the play, Kinnear will do everything he can to maximize Landin's talent.
3. Is Houston too old?
It's a question that has been raised ever since the Dynamo's shocking exit at the hands of New York in the 2008 playoffs. Yet despite players such as midfielder Brian Mullan, forward Brian Ching and goalkeeper Pat Onstad now firmly on the wrong side of 30, Houston continues to get results, putting additional stock in Kinnear's credo of "It's not how old you are, but how well you play."
Still, the departures of Clark and Holden have added a bit more urgency to Kinnear's finding some younger legs. And although players such as Cameron and Andrew Hainault have helped the Dynamo in this regard, others such as Corey Ashe and Danny Cruz will need to step up their respective games this season in order to provide the kind of quality cover in midfield the team needs.
Biggest X factor: Cameron
Cameron is different from Holden in almost every respect. He possesses superior range, athleticism and an ability to crash the box, while Holden is craftier on the ball and more precise in his passing. Yet Cameron, in his own way, will need to contribute to the attack enough to ease the pain of Holden's departure.
If Cameron is successful in this endeavor, it will make Houston's life much easier, as it will prevent teams from clamping down exclusively on Brad Davis. But if Cameron struggles, Kinnear may be forced to bring Davis inside, which could compromise other parts of his lineup.
Breakout player to watch: Dominic Oduro
Given Landin's fitness struggles along with Ching's likely absence thanks to the World Cup, Oduro will get yet another opportunity to shine. Of course, more than one coach has torn his hair out trying to coax goals out of Oduro's obvious physical gifts. The forward's searing pace has long allowed him to take up great positions in the attacking third, yet that stellar work often has been undone by some wildly erratic finishing.
If Oduro can find even a modicum of consistency in front of goal, Houston could be very tough to beat. If he doesn't, that could open the door for a player like Cam Weaver to assume the "breakout player" label. At 6-foot-4, Weaver has showed flashes of being a forceful presence in the box but has struggled with injury during his brief time in MLS.
For two years now, the temptation has been to call time on Houston's dynasty, one that includes four championships in the past nine seasons if you take into account the team's tenure in San Jose. Yet despite a series of player departures that would have crushed other teams, the Dynamo have managed to maintain their spot among the league's elite, and that doesn't look set to change this year.
The defense, ably marshaled by Onstad and defender Bobby Boswell, has for years been among the stingiest in the league. And even if Eddie Robinson can't recapture his Best XI form of 2007, having Serioux and Ryan Cochrane in reserve should give the team plenty of quality options in defense. This alone will make Houston competitive.
Up top, the presence of Ching, Landin, Oduro and Weaver gives the Dynamo enough depth and variety to threaten any opposing defense.
The key of course, will be the midfield. Davis delivered an outstanding season in 2009, notching a career-high 12 assists while scoring five goals, but he can expect to receive even more defensive attention this year. On the opposite flank, Mullan remains a terror on defense, but he'll need to improve on his offensive output from 2009, a campaign that saw him fail to score in league play while contributing just four assists.
That said, the glue that has kept the Dynamo together has been Kinnear. His ability to improvise in terms of personnel has allowed Houston to maintain a solid level of depth, and this isn't the first time he's had to retool parts of his team. In 2005, what was then the San Jose Earthquakes lost Landon Donovan, Jeff Agoos, Ronnie Ekelund and Mulrooney, yet Kinnear still fashioned a side that won the Supporters' Shield. Add in the fact that Houston will not be encumbered by CONCACAF Champions League commitments at the start of this season, and the Dynamo should get off to a better start than in years past.
Without a doubt, there are some question marks surrounding this team, but at season's end, expect Houston to be among those contending for a championship.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.