Season Preview: Houston Dynamo

Since the club arrived in Houston Dominic Kinnear has built himself an empire, but not one built off big names or flashy play. Playing on the smallest pitch in MLS, the club is built on sound fundamentals. Defense might not necessarily win games but it can secure points on the road. Combine that with the fortress that has been the Orange’s BBVA Compass stadium–where they went an MLS record 36 home games without a loss stretching multiple seasons–and Houston can get points anywhere consistently. They’ve made the playoffs 7 out of their 8 years since arriving in Space City, so the goal of 2014 isn’t just to make the playoffs. It’s about getting back to the MLS Cup and taking it back for the first time since 2007.

2013 Starting XI

HoustonXI

Players In Players Out
D David Horst Trade (Portland) F Brian Ching Retired
D A.J. Cochran MLS SuperDraft M Bobby Boswell Out of Contract
M Tony Cascio Trade (DC) F Calen Carr Out of Contract
F Mark Sherrod Trade (Chicago) D Mike Chabala Option Declined
GK Michael Lisch Loan (Stoke City) M Alex Dixon Option Declined
F Cam Weaver Option Declined

Roster churn: Houston returns 82.84% of its minutes played from 2013 (5th most in MLS and 4th most in the Eastern Conference)

2014 Preview

HOUINFO

The core of Houston has always been built around their defense, but this season may prove to be a bit of a departure from that theme. The club chose to decline Bobby Boswell‘s contract and instead went with a rotating duo of veterans at centerback to be paired with Jamaican stalwart Jermaine Taylor. Eric Brunner and David Horst, both 28, aren’t the sexiest names in regards to defense, but then again defense is generally the least sexy place on the pitch. When you consider the fact that this is normally a strength, falling backwards now to Brunner and Horst is probably a less than appealing subject for those in Houston.

Hou-RosterThat said, I established a rule two years ago. I have a series of rules that I generally come up with in dealing with life in general. These rules aren’t so much rules as just helpful guidlines that generally keep me from more problems. High on that list is to never, ever bet against Dominic Kinnear. (Right after never betting at all because it’s a misdemeanor in Washington). The guy just knows A) how to get to the playoffs and B) how to put together a roster. Probably in the opposite order, though.

The cheaper tandem along the backline helps them conserve cash while still providing depth and coverage at an important position. Considering the club failed to make the CCL this year, they were faced with a smaller budget to keep the players they had and still find reasonable depth for the season. There is, of course, the question about how big of a defensive drop off they are going to experience from Boswell to someone like Brunner. But considering our numbers have Tally Hall as one of the top goal keepers in the league, and they don’t even pay him anywhere near it, the Dynamo should remain a top defensive team.

While everyone likes to rant and rave about Brad Davis and his left foot, as the career leader in both assists and goals for the club, it’s easy to pass over Oscar Boniek Garcia the other major attacking threat from the midfield. OBG led the club in key passes with 76 and added 18 total shots, as well.

Another one of those is lesser heralded moves was Alexander Lopez being added from Honduras. Lopez, a member of the U-23 national team and possibly an option for the Honduras World cup team, was brought into the club last summer. Though Lopez was mostly invisible to the scoring operations taking place in Houston last season, Garcia has taken him under his wing this off-season and is helping to groom his fellow countryman.

Adding to the fire that is burning bright with the under-appreciated pieces that Houston has assembled, there is plenty of talk around what another season with Warren Creavalle might mean to the Orange. He’s a Swiss-army-knife-like defensive piece in a love-child-like mix of Brad Evans and Geoff Cameron.* The former Georgia product is growing by leaps and bounds over the last 12 months. He may not be a clear cut choice to start at this point for the Dynamo’s XI, but he’s going to be the first player off the bench to fill into just about any position in the midfield or defensive back line, and that flexibility has huge value over an entire season.

*Editor’s note: The editor is just going to let this sit there.

The remaining question is how Will Bruin performs in 2014. The dancing bear should be good for about 10 goals or more this season. He’s put up near 3 shots per 90 minutes played each of the past two years, and while those chances becoming goals is dependent more on location, he’s seen a bit of bad luck strike him at times where, in the year previous, those balls bounced his way.

Paired along side English journeyman Giles Barnes–who looks to have perhaps found a home this past year, scoring 9 goals on 97 shots through 2500 minutes–Houston has multiple wonder-strikers from distance. It’s one thing to be lucky; it’s another to find goals because of the courage to continue to fire the shots.

The Dynamo found a way to keep the group of players they recruited for 2013 together for another run of it in 2014, despite declining payroll and allocation funds. They’ve got youth on their side with a touch of growing strength, added to one of the most brilliant coaches in the league managing them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a top-3 finish with a boring run through the schedule. The other side of things is that they’re going to have a tough time of it with the likes of Philadelphia, Toronto, DC and even Columbus all being improved sides, that they could end up on the outside looking in when the playoffs come rolling around. It’s definitely a tough year to be in the East.

Crowd Sourcing Placement

4th place in Eastern Conference; 75 of the 404 5th-place votes (18.56%), with 207 of 404 (51.23%) thinking Houston will make the playoffs this season.

More rambling thoughts on formations

A big thanks to Dave Clark (or to whomever he got them from) of Sounder[at]Heart, from whom I’m about to rip the following quotes.

Today during an pre-season opening presser with the media, Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid addressed questions concerning his roster construction and the possibilities of what type of formations the team could deploy this season. This is a pressing matter among most Sounders supporters who are attempting to peer inside the tactics of this unusual off-season of maneuvers for the club.

“We have an idea, as in terms of what we want to do. We want to play two upfront. We think we’re better with two upfront and Dempsey, I think, is more effective when he has two guys in front of him… It’s like I always say, people get too hung up in ‘Is it a diamond midfield? Is it a 4-4-2? Is it a 4-2-3-1?’ It’s all about how players play on different parts of the field. Players like to play in certain areas of the field and they like to drift to certain areas. We just need to construct a system, if you want to call it that, and place guys on the field where they can compliment each other and be able to take advantage of where they like to play and what they do well.”

Again, I love this because I think it truly reflects the current incarnation of soccer. Players are smarter now and more endowed with Soccer IQ than what they were years ago. Finding players that function best in certain areas of the field where your team needs it most should be the goal of any front office.

I always loved this quote from Dominic Kinnear, who told Matthew Doyle, the MLS Soccer Armchair Analyst, “You either have the ball or you don’t, I’m not a big fan of talking formations.” There is just so much awesomeness there in the sense that Dom takes a complicated intrinsic function of the coach, and instead of further vague direction, he simplifies it.

Again, I’ve said it before that formations and placement matter. There was a reason that Seattle struggled last year when they used Adam Moffat in an awkward and unfamiliar location as they attempted to implement a diamond formation in an effort accentuate the talents of newly acquired Clint Dempsey. This ended up a bad decision for quite a few different reasons, outside of the fact that Adam Moffat just wasn’t very good in his appearances at that position.

Another problem with the Sounders last season was their problem with certain players drifting across various places on the pitch, where I don’t think the coaching staff had planned for them to be. This caused problems early in the season despite the level of talent at their disposal. A specific example would be Mario Martinez and his tendency to wander. This might not have been factored or accounted for as they deployed him to wide positions. Maybe they had expectations of him residing as a true winger in the vein of Mauro Rosales. I’m not sure this is specifically an issue so much as, if it’s taken into account, you just get players to drift into the open spaces that are created with that movement.

You can call this a free flowing system or a variety of many other things. I suppose it doesn’t really matter all that much. The important take away is that you have a method in place to score goals and prevent them from being scored against you. Whether you choose to exercise a formation to best do that or not, we’re all judged by results. It’ll be interesting to see how the Dynamo and Sounders continue to develop over the 2014 season.