Inside MLS season preview: Houston Dynamo

Houston once again looks poised to make a run toward MLS Cup.

Troy Taormina/Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

ESSENTIAL FACTS

Last year in a nutshell: This venerable side earned its way into the postseason yet again, but familiar adversaries Sporting Kansas City stopped the Dynamo from making a third consecutive MLS Cup appearance.

(as of February 26)

Incoming: GK: Michael Lisch (New Mexico); DF: A.J. Cochran (Wisconsin), David Horst (Portland); MF: Tony Cascio (Colorado – intraleague loan); FW: Mark Sherrod (Memphis)

Outgoing: DF: Bobby Boswell (D.C. United); MF: Alex Dixon (unattached); FW: Calen Carr (unattached), Brian Ching (retired), Cam Weaver (unattached)

Houston will rely on Jermaine Taylor to ensure the Dynamo’s defensive efforts meet the usual standards.

FUNDAMENTALS

Key Player: Houston relies on a strong defensive core to allow its creative players like Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia to flourish. The departure of Bobby Boswell places additional pressure on Jermaine Taylor to ensure the foundation remains strong heading into 2014. Taylor must offer consistent and effective displays alongside either Eric Brunner or David Horst to guarantee normal service remains in place and provide the sort of stability required to keep the side ticking along as usual.

Strengths: This deep and seasoned outfit possesses a firm knowledge of how it wants to play and relies on its nous to churn out results. Tally Hall is one of the league’s best goalkeepers, a number one capable of stealing matches on a regular basis. The back four must answer a few questions (as noted above and below), but Corey Ashe and Kofi Sarkodie offer some width moving forward from their fullback spots. Ricardo Clark covers acres of space in central midfield and links the play well enough. Davis and Garcia combine to a present a complex threat as the Dynamo moves briskly through the middle third. Their quality on the ball permits the Dynamo to keep possession if desired and supplies plenty of creativity into the final third. Andrew Driver and Alex López constitute the sort of quality secondary options most teams can’t afford or locate. The trio of Giles Barnes (team-high nine goals last season), Will Bruin and Omar Cummings looks like it could provide enough goals on paper. And veteran coach Dominic Kinnear knows how to engineer a response if the performances or the results dip.

Weaknesses: The strength of the collective obscures the lack of a trusted number nine to lead the line and polish off moves reliably. Bruin’s inefficiency left the Dynamo exposed in the final third. If he doesn’t improve his precision, then Barnes (again) or Cummings must shoulder a larger load than desired on that front. Ashe and Sarkodie face a similar conundrum as they push forward given the revamped nature of the central defensive department. Their adventurous nature could leave the rearguard exposed at points, but a more conservative approach limits Davis’ ability to float inside to create overload situations.

Tally Hall can steal matches with his ability between the sticks, but the Dynamo goalkeeper will expect to have plenty of help in front of him.

PROSPECTS FOR 2014

Key questions:

● Will the defensive changes alter the usual defiance?: This group leaked goals from time to time last year, but it generally succeeded in its objective to make life hard on the opposition. The change from Boswell to Brunner or Horst creates some uncertainty within the ranks, though. One of those two players must step up appropriately to help Taylor solidify the middle of the back four. Expect the rangy support from Clark and Warren Creavalle (once he returns to full fitness and if he wards off the competition for a starting role) in the middle of the park to aid the cause.

● Can the current crop of forwards increase the margin for error?: Houston finished perfectly poised in the goal difference column last season: 41 goals scored, 41 goals against. There were more than enough chances to bolster the first number and provide some breathing room for the second, but too many of those opportunities ended up in the stands instead. A few more timely strikes will boost the point haul and provide the rearguard with a little more latitude along the way.

● Is Will Bruin a striker or the guy?: Bruin moved onto the periphery of the U.S. national team setup with a 12-goal campaign in 2012. His total slipped to eight last season, but his penchant for spurning opportunities proved more troublesome. He worked hard with the now-retired Brian Ching to improve his technical work in the buildup and through the line, but he needs to ally his diligence with the ruthlessness necessary to silence the doubts about his precision inside the penalty area.

Best case scenario: Everything proceeds according to the template established during previous years. The fine-tuned machine cobbles together more than its fair share of points during the regular season. Davis or Garcia emerges as a bonafide MVP candidate. The success continues in the playoffs as the Dynamo frustrates the opposition. Another MLS Cup appearance – and perhaps even a third triumph – ends the campaign on a high note.

Worst case scenario: All of the potential trouble spots contribute to a rockier regular season than expected. The team muddles through, of course, but the stumbles – particularly in both penalty areas – eventually take their toll in the latter stages of the campaign. This perennial contender limps into the playoffs and watches its shortage of goals eventually hasten its demise.

2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS

FEB. 24Chicago Fire – Mike Magee’s encore – Chivas USA

FEB. 25Colorado Rapids – Exploring the new vision in Columbus – Columbus Crew

FEB. 26D.C. United – Eddie Johnson steps into the spotlight again – FC Dallas

FEB. 27Houston Dynamo – Galaxy plots a return to the summit – LA Galaxy

FEB. 28: Montréal Impact – New England Revolution

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MARCH 3: New York Red Bulls – Philadelphia Union

MARCH 4: Portland Timbers – Real Salt Lake

MARCH 5: San Jose Earthquakes – Seattle Sounders – Sporting Kansas City

MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps