Off of two straight MLS Cup appearances, Houston entered the 2013 season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference, but after injuries, absences, and a midseason scoring drought pushed them into another four-five game, Dominic Kinnear’s team succumbed one-step short of third-straight final. Though they saw Montréal and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls out of the playoffs, the Dynamo was unable to continue their mastery of Sporting Kansas City, falling to the eventual MLS champions in the conference finals.
While that slight regression would suggest a wane, Houston’s core remains strong, with only veteran center back Bobby Boswell having departed from the starting lineup that was in place at the end of 2013. While that team was only good enough to finish fourth in the East, it did so while Davis seemed constantly away with the U.S. national team, Boniek Garcia was hampered by injuries and commitments to Honduras, and Will Bruin only found goal twice in a 15-game span in the middle of the season.
Add in Boswell’s regression (playing a significant level below his 2012 performance), and Houston never found top gear in 2013. When New England visits BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday, however, the Dynamo have a chance to reclaim last March’s promise. While Boswell, Adam Moffat, and Calen Carr (who missed the entire 2013 season) may be gone from the team that lost to the LA Galaxy in 2012’s MLS Cup, the Dynamo has a series of options that will help the team threaten for another conference title.
Players in: Tony Cascio (loan, Colorado), A.J. Cochran (draft), David Horst (trade, Portland), Michael Lisch (draft), Mark Sherrod (draft)
Players out: Bobby Boswell (selected by D.C. United in re-entry), Calen Carr (out of contract), Brian Ching (retired), Alex Dixon (released), Erich Marscheider, Cam Weaver (option declined)
Key player: “Eric Horst” (the forced combination or Eric Brunner and David Horst)
Central defense is Houston’s biggest weakness. If Will Bruin returns to his 2012, 16-goal self, it will be the team’s only weakness, with the departure of Boswell leaving Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor to anchor the back line with either David Horst or Eric Brunner. Two Portland Timber cast-offs trying to find new life in Houston? It’s not exactly a formula that’s going to produce the next Matt Besler and Aurélien Collin.
Horst had a strong season for Portland in 2012, while Brunner is two years removed from his last full-time role, yet Kinnear’s gamble on the duo to produce a starter isn’t the biggest issue in defender. Whomever ends up playing along side the incumbent Taylor will be part of a pair that lacks foot speed; one that will be overly reliant on Ricardo Clark and Warren Creavalle for protection. While that midfield duo’s capable of shielding a problematic defense, the need to do so could limit Kinnear’s want to make Clark a force higher up the field.
Brad Davis (pictured) will contend for a spot on the All-Star team, and if he plays to his potential, Boniek Garcia can be the best wide midfielder in the league. But if the central defense doesn’t come together, Houston is unlikely to transcend last year’s fourth place finish. Whether it’s David Horst, Eric Brunner, or “Eric Horst,” Houston needs one of their ex-Timbers to exceed expectations for the Dynamo to meet theirs.
Manager: Kinnear is one of the elite coaches in Major League Soccer. For some, he’s the first name that comes up after Bruce Arena when talking about the league’s best – somebody who should garner U.S. Men’s National Team consideration when Jurgen Klinsmann moves on. Though not every player succeeds under Kinnear, many who have struggled elsewhere do, with the Dynamo boss having almost completely rebuilt the team that won back-to-back titles upon its move from San Jose. Only Davis, Clark, Corey Ashe and Mike Chabala remain from the 2007 champions (and only Davis and Ashe have have had non-stop runs with the team).
Outlook: Sporting Kansas City will be favored to take the East, with plenty bound to put New York and Toronto among the favorites to unseat the MLS champions. Houston, while flawed, should be in that conversation. As their 2011 and 2012 playoff runs showed, the Dynamo’s capable of producing results that exceed its talent. If Kinnear has a team that can get him to November — and with Davis, Garcia, Clark and Bruin, he does — Houston has a chance to play on the season’s final day.