Preview: FC Dallas vs. Houston
After an offseason of dwelling over their Western Conference finals defeat, the Houston Dynamo were almost denied a chance to compete for an MLS Cup again.
Houston went 13-8-9 last season to tie Los Angeles for the second-best point total in the league, one shy of Columbus' 49. The Dynamo got by Seattle in the conference semifinals but were ousted by the Galaxy in their bid to advance to the MLS Cup for the third time in four years.
Houston gets to prove it will be a strong contender again now that a potentially crippling strike was averted when the players union and league owners agreed on a new five-year labor contract last weekend. Now the Dynamo's biggest concern is shoring up their midfield.
After Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark both signed overseas, Houston is relying on players such as Geoff Cameron and Brad Davis to fill the void. Cameron, entering his third season, is embracing the challenge as he makes the switch from defender.
"More competition for the team and guys working harder just makes us play better for each other and the team," Cameron said. "It's not clear-cut like it was last year or the year before ... guys are going to be stepping up and challenging for positions."
Davis, who played with FC Dallas from 2003-05, has three assists against his former team. He had five goals and a team-high 12 assists for the Dynamo last season.
Houston will again rely on Brian Ching for most of its scoring. The All-Star forward has 39 goals in four seasons with Houston.
Dallas' Jeff Cunningham won the MLS Golden Boot last season as the league's leading scorer, posting 17 goals and eight assists. He had seven goals in five September games to earn MLS player of the month honors.
Cunningham has four goals and three assists in eight starts against the Dynamo.
Defense is Dallas' biggest concern after surrendering 47 goals last season, when it finished 11-13-6 and missed the playoffs.
Veteran goalkeeper Kevin Hartman was acquired in a trade with Kansas City on March 8. Dallas still has Dario Sala, who had four shutouts in 14 games, but it will be tough to take playing time away from Hartman.
The four-time All-Star is the league's all-time leader in saves (1,235) and shutouts (84).
Pat Onstad has started all 14 of Houston's matchup with Dallas. He has a 1.14 goals-against average in those contests, allowing multiple goals three times.
The Dynamo are 7-2-5 versus Dallas, winning two of three last season.
"For me, that is a different type of game," Sala said. "I have my mindset for every game but this one has a little added spice. To beat Houston in the opening game at home is doubly satisfying. We get the three points like normal when we win, but against Houston it has a different flavor."