Houston Dynamo preview: Goals in need

There is little disputing the fact that 2012 is a big year for the Houston Dynamo, what with the team’s new stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium, set to open this season. The team comes into the new campaign fresh off an MLS Cup Final appearance, and the boost of a new stadium could help propel the Dynamo, but we are left with one real question about this team.

Just how good are the Houston Dynamo? It is a fair question because while Dom Kinnear’s squad did reach the 2011 MLS Cup Final, they did so after finishing the regular season with the sixth-best record in MLS. Now, after an off-season that saw Houston make few major personnel moves, the Dynamo have to find a way to improve on last year’s overall performance.

Houston remains a tough opponent, with a stingy defense that makes things difficult for any team the Dynamo faces. This became even more true late last year, when Kinnear made the decision to move Geoff Cameron to central defense. His partnership with Bobby Boswell, coupled with Andre Hainault’s presence on the back-line, helped the Dynamo finish 2011 allowing just five goals in their final nine matches (including the playoffs).

That stinginess should help make Houston a playoff team again this year, but if the Dynamo are going to be among the league’s elite, they will need their offense to be better. Houston finished seventh in MLS in goals scored, a number aided greatly by Brad Davis’ outstanding set piece delivery. Davis enjoyed an MVP-caliber season, and carried the Dynamo offense for months at a time, but expecting him to improve on 2011 with basically the same cast of characters around him is too much to ask.

Houston surely knows this, which explains why the Dynamo spent the winter searching for a high-profile striker to add to the mix. As things stand, Houston look poised to enter the 2012 campaign with Brian Ching, Will Bruin and Calen Carr among the forward options, along with newly-acquired Macoumba Kandji.

Houston avoided a disaster by getting Ching’s rights back from Montreal after leaving him unprotected in the MLS Expansion Draft. Ching is still a good forward who can lead the line, but his age, and given his injury history, Houston is going to need someone else to step up. Bruin looks like a good candidate for a breakout season after showing real signs of promise as a rookie. Kandji brings a unique element off the bench, but shouldn’t be expected to work any miracles.

If the Dynamo are to have a realistic chance of improving their offense without adding a big-name forward, they will need midfielder Luiz Camargo to have a big year. The Brazilian playmaker looked good at times last season, including some bright moments in the playoffs. Colin Clarke is a year removed from knee surgery and should be poised to return to the form that once made him a standout for the Colorado Rapids.

Ultimately, the Dynamo aren’t likely to undergo any dramatic changes in philosophy, even if they eventually succeed in landing the kind of elite forward the club is craving. Houston will remain a tough and physical team with a strong defense, a team that relies on set pieces to generate offense.

That may not be enough to call Houston an elite team heading into 2012, but it should be enough to get the Dynamo back into the playoffs, where they have already shown they can do damage even without a high-powered offense.

2012 HOUSTON DYNAMO TEAM OUTLOOK

TOP PLAYERS: Brad Davis, Geoff Cameron, Brian Ching, Andre Hainault

KEY ADDITIONS: Nathan Sturgis, Macoumba Kandji, Colin Rolfe, Warren Creavalle

KEY LOSSE: Carlos Costly, Hunter Freeman, Danny Cruz, Jason Garey

MUST HAVE A BIG YEAR: Luiz Camargo. The Brazilian playmaker was brought back because of his ability to create. Houston will need him to do just that to help take pressure of Brad Davis and set up chances for the Dynamo’s forwards.

BREAKOUT PLAYER TO WATCH: Kofi Sarkodie. The speedy right back struggled for playing time his rookie season and will continue to face a major fight for minutes this year. But his form with the US Under-23 national team suggests he’s ready for a bigger role for the Dynamo.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Who will score the goals? Brian Ching’s return is a positive sign for the Dynamo, but it remains unclear whether Ching, or any of the team’s other forwards, are capable of scoring 10 or more goals this season. Nobody on the Dynamo scored more than five in 2011, but Bruin has shown promise

OUTLOOK: The Dynamo hit their stride late in the 2011 season behind stingy defending and Davis’ set pieces. That formula can get you on a playoff run, but won’t do over the course of the season. Houston won’t give up many goals, but unless Camargo can emerge as a true impact playmaker, and forwards like Bruin and Rolfe can emerge as real threats, the Dynamo will struggle for goals. Moving into their new home, BVBA Stadium, should provide a major boost. A return to the playoffs is a safe bet in the wide-open East, but a return to the MLS Cup Final seems unlikely unless a goal-scorer emerges, or is signed.