Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Houston Dynamo

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

For a team that finished in the middle of their conference last season, the Houston Dynamo carry surprisingly few questions into their 2013 campaign.

That’s because they’re not a fifth-place caliber team. Two years in a row, Dominic Kinnear has guided his team to an MLS Cup final, and while Sporting has claimed two conference titles in that time, there’s little doubt which team are currently kings in the East.

Bringing back the same core that clicked during last year’s playoffs, Houston should be expected to better their 2012 regular season finish. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some doubt.

  • Is the defense for real?

Houston lost Geoff Cameron and didn’t miss a beat. They made a change at right back mid-stream and never lost their edge. As with most Kinnear teams, Houston’s defense served as the bedrock for the coach’s approach.

That’s no guarantee everything will unfold the same this spring. Bobby Boswell may have has his best MLS season in 2012. Will that continue into 2013? Will Jermaine Taylor resume the same high level he carried through his time in Cameron’s spot? And how will Kofie Sarkodie respond to his first March as Houston’s first choice right back?

Expect all those questions to come back positive. At not point during last year’s run did the you watch this back four and think “this has to be a fluke.” But sample sizes being what they are, it’s worth watching to make sure our initial perceptions coincide with the long-term reality. Preseason will give us our first hints.

  • Can Rico play a more attacking part?

Ricardo Clark’s return from Germany allowed Kinnear to switch from the 4-4-3 he used through summer to his preferred 4-4-2. With Clark and Adam Moffat in the middle, the Dynamo had a tandem that could both destroy play and clean up the second balls.

This year, however, Ricardo Clark may need to expand his game. Both he and Dominic Kinnear had hoped he’d play a more attacking role when he came into the starting XI, but his presence rarely translated into something going forward.

Conceivably, Houston could be fine if Clark plays the same way he did down the stretch in 2013, but the Dynamo would be much more balanced (and ultimately, dangerous) if they didn’t have to rely solely on Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. Preseason’s the perfect time for Clark to start taking some chances.

  • How does Houston reach the next level?

Making finals is nice and losing to the Galaxy is understandable, but at some point it’s going to get old. And there’s always going to be a talented team at the end of any championship road.

If Houston’s going to reclaim an MLS crowd, they need something else. Perhaps that’s Clark finding some creativity. Maybe it’s Will Bruin becoming an All-Star. Boniek Garcia may become one of the league’s elite players. Perhaps Tally Hall becomes MLS’s Petr Cech. If so, we may start to see it in preseason.

Any of these things may prove enough to give Houston that one missing quality they need to win (instead of merely compete in) their last game.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: LA Galaxy

Atletico Madrid roster for MLS All-Star Game includes Felix

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Major League Soccer fans will get a good luck at one of the hottest prospects in world soccer when the MLS All Stars take on Atletico Madrid in next week’s MLS All Star Game.

Joao Felix, the $142 million 19-year-old, is among the roster announced by Diego Simeone for the match.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

Felix scored 20 times with 11 assists in 40 matches for Benfica before moving to Atleti in the summer. Those numbers include a hat trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals first leg.

The other stars will be there, too, provided no transfers happen in the interim. Koke, Thomas Lemar, Diego Costa, and Saul Niguez are in the squad.

New Atleti defender Kieran Trippier and longtime El Tri hero Hector Herrera will also be sure to help drive attendance in Orlando City.

The full roster is here.

Leagues Cup preview: MLS gets its next shot at Liga MX

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It’s not a typo; The s is very real.

The Leagues Cup — not the League Cup — is the new competition pitting Major League Soccer sides against some of the top sides from Mexico’s Liga MX.

The tournament has been expanded before it’s even seen a ball kicked in competition, as the second edition with go from eight to 16 teams.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

For now, though, we’ve got four American and four Mexican sides meeting over the next two months in a bid for North American supremacy not unlike a CONCACAF Champions League stripped of all the minnows.

Much like the CCL, the Mexican sides will be expected to triumph, even with all of the quarterfinals being staged in the United States.

Chicago Fire hosts Cruz Azul on Tuesday, followed by the LA Galaxy’s visit from Club Tijuana.

Wednesday will see the Houston Dynamo host Club America, and Tigres UANL at Real Salt Lake.

The winners meet Aug. 20, while the final will be played Sept. 18 in Las Vegas.

There’s a lot of promise in this, and it gives MLS another chance to make some statements about the distance between it and Liga MX. The Mexican sides have flat out dominated the CCL, and it’s not difficult to make the same prediction for this tournament.

But, like many tournaments, it also gives success-starved clubs a chance to give their fans something big and their players a tonic. For Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s Chicago, for one, it’s a huge opportunity. And for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy, it’s a look toward another piece of silverware for one of the world’s biggest trophy cases.

USMNT prospect Ledezma earns praise from van Nistelrooy

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Even for talents of the highest levels with top soccer education, sometimes a kid’s gotta learn how to eat.

Richard “Richie” Ledezma, 18, is in the midst of his first year at Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, a spot which beckoned after a five-match, one-goal season in the USL with Real Monarchs of the USL.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Ledezma starred for U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup after his first half-season with PSV, which saw him play with the U-19s while trying to lose some weight.

From Goal.com:

“PSV help me with my nutrition, with my food and how I eat. It’s the quantity of food you eat, I guess,” he added. “Because I came a little chubby, when I got here, I guess. They all called me ‘fatty’ and stuff, so I was like, cool, you know? So no more McDonald’s.”

Goal’s James Westwood had a wide-ranging interview with Ledezma and also spoke with soccer royalty: longtime Real Madrid and Manchester United scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was Ledezma’s coach with the U-19s.

“He’s making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he’s creating chances for the whole team.”

That’s not just good praise from a legend, but a solid sign for fans of the United States men’s national team. A proper No. 10 or playmaking midfielder could allow Gregg Berhalter or another future USMNT coach to use Christian Pulisic on the wings.

Ledezma has some work to do before he breaks into the first team of the Dutch runners-up, who have signed former Stoke City man Ibrahim Afellay and has Gaston Pereiro in the fold as well.

Newcastle reportedly in for $28M mercurial Nice attacker

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L’Equipe says that Newcastle United have returned to Nice in the hopes of landing Allan Saint-Maximin.

The Ligue 1 outfit wants $28 million for the playmaker, who could team up with Miguel Almiron and (maybe) Joelinton to give the Magpies a much-improved attack.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Saint-Maximin, 22, has 10 goals and 10 assists across his last two seasons with Nice, and played everywhere in attack for Patrick Vieira: both wings, center forward, second striker, attacking mid… even some left and right midfield.

The player, however, has been a headache for Vieira at times, with the manager saying Saint-Maximin believes that he has enough talent to reach the highest level without the required amount of work.

That said, the youngster’s skill set is electric. He’s a March birth date, too, so a relatively young 22. That $28 million would be another transfer record broken for Newcastle, assuming it happens ahead of the Joelinton move.

Or… as Newcastle fan knows, neither could go through.