After all the signings, draft picks and pre-season matches, the 2011 Houston Dynamo season at last gets started for real on Saturday evening when the Philadelphia Union comes to Robertson Stadium. The Dynamo lost at home to the Union last season, one of the many matches where the defense faltered, costing the team potential points. That performance and many others led to many of the changes in the back line and after looking solid throughout the pre-season, it's time for a test that counts.
There are ten new faces on the Dynamo roster, a major overhaul that saw the team get younger and more athletic, especially in the defense where the competition for playing time was fierce throughout the pre-season. Based on the variety of lineups and combination we saw, it's fair to assume that nearly everyone on the roster was working to earn time and prove to the coaching staff they deserved a starting spot. Hopefully this kind of competition will lead to improved performance on the field.
What we know about Dominic Kinnear's starting lineup is this: Tally Hall will start in goal. Brad Davis, Geoff Cameron and Lovel Palmer will start in the midfield. Bobby Boswell will start in central defense. Beyond that, it's up in the air. Fortunately, even with a forward spot opened up by Brian Ching's injury, the questions about the starting XI are more about who Kinnear selects rather than what does he do to fill the roll.
The central defense pairing of Jermaine Taylor and Bobby Boswell seems the best choice for me. The sooner they are in game situations together and the more time of the field they share, the better the Dynamo defense should be. The real cluster, and not a bad one, is at the fullback spots. You can make a case for Chabala, Hainault, Freeman and Sarkodie to all start. Each provides different skills and options, so unless certain players are just in a great run of form and impress in practice, we could see various combinations depending on the opponent until the coaching staff settles.
Sarkodie is a hell of a talent, but Kinnear typically doesn't like to start rookies so at least for the time being, I think we'll see Hunter Freeman and Mike Chabala at the fullback spots, but the pressure will be on to perform with capable players waiting on the bench. After last season, there is no room for error in the defense and there is enough depth and talent to allow changes to be made if someone isn't getting the job done.
While the first question on everyone's mind is who will be the four starters this weekend in the back, there are openings in other spots on the field that are waiting to be filled.
With Brian Ching likely out, it makes sense that rookie Will Bruin will be rewarded for his strong pre-season with a start on opening day, but you can just as easily make the case (for different reasons) that Kinnear will go with Cam Weaver and Dominic Oduro, fact is, we just don't know. Personally, I'd like to see Will Bruin and Jason Garey start in the attack, with Dominic Oduro making a second half appearance to do what he does best, which is of course run at a tired defense...did you expect me to say something else?
Despite the fact he joined the team late in the pre-season, Oduro saw regular time in matches and Kinnear showed an affinity for starting the speedy forward throughout last season. Sure Oduro's finishing leaves a lot to be desired, but given he ability to stretch a defense, you can at least understand Kinnear's thinking. That said, I think it would make more sense to put two target type forwards up front and allow the speed and technical ability in your midfield to generate chances.
Either Danny Cruz or Corey Ashe can challenge the defense with speed, though Cruz is the better offensive option for me. The key is forcing width and space that Davis and Cameron can exploit and while Oduro can do that, you essentially sacrifice a potential scoring threat by having him on the field. Better in my book, to put Bruin with Garey or Weaver and let your midfield find them or exploit space created by defenses having to concern themselves with Brad and Geoff.
There is no doubt that whomever starts this weekend will have earned their spot, but that's just the beginning. They'll have to perform on the field to keep the spot and that's something that can only benefit the team in the long run. Last season's disappointing record didn't just leave a bad taste in fans mouths, this team is hungry and is determined to return Houston to the playoffs.
So about an hour or so before kickoff on Saturday, we'll see what Kinnear's lineup is and the discussion will undoubtedly begin as you why Player A started over Player B, but when the whistle blows all that matters is the results, especially at home.
The Dynamo went 6-6-3 at Robertson Stadium, hardly the kind of results the team is used to or expects playing at home. Making it difficult for opponents to leave Houston with points had been a big part of the team's success in their first four seasons and getting back to those positive home field habits will be a big part of how far the team goes in 2011.
As for the Union, Piotr Nowak has made several changes including adding two experienced players in new Columbian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and old Dynamo nemesis, forward Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz helped build the rivalry between Houston and FC Dallas from 2006-07, scoring three goals in nine games against Houston, including playoffs. He also committed 30 fouls in those games and suffered 21. Ruiz has five yellow cards and one red card all-time against the Dynamo.
The Dynamo defense will no doubt be tested by midfielder Sebastien Le Toux who carried the Union attack on his back last season. The addition of Ruiz could allow Le Toux to move in to an attacking midfield role which would likely make him even more of a handful to deal with. Le Toux has been dealing with an ankle injury but he's expected to be fit and ready to play on Saturday.
The Union currently only have five natural defenders on their roster which is a risky move by the team. Danny Califf will be joined in the middle by new signing Carlos Valdes, while Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams are expected to start in the fullback spots. Philadelphia will be able to produce goals, but there will be a ton of pressure on the defense and Mondragon to keep opponents from scoring more.
There's no doubt Mondragdon is an upgrade in net, but the serious lack of depth leaves virtually no room for injury or error for Nowak's team. It will be interesting to see how this group performs and if Mondragon is up to the task.
For more on the Union, visit The Brotherly Game.
- Houston is unbeaten in home openers (2-0-3), defeating Real Salt Lake last season 2-1.
- MLS SuperDraft picks Kofi Sarkodie and Will Bruin both ended the preseason competing for starting spots. No Houston rookie has ever started an Opening Day match, and only Geoff Cameron (3/29/08) has played at all as a rookie in an opener. Eighth-year head coach Dominic Kinnear has only started one rookie on Opening Day in his coaching career: Danny O'Rourke in 2005 with San Jose.
- At 19 years, 362 days, defender Kofi Sarkodie could become the youngest player in Houston history to start an MLS match if he gets the nod on Saturday. The current Dynamo record is held by midfielder Danny Cruz, who scored in his first MLS start on May 22, 2010 at the age of 20 years, 139 days.
- Midfielder Brad Davis led the Dynamo offense in the preseason with four goals and six assists in only
535 minutes. Davis notched five goals and 12 assists in league play in each of the last two years to earn
team MVP honors. His preseason goals included one penalty kick and three direct free kicks; his six assists
included four from corner kicks.
- Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall is expected to start in net, taking over for the departed Pat Onstad. Although Hall has played only five MLS games, he has made 18 starts for the Dynamo in all competitions over the past two years, twice tying the club record with 10 saves in a single match.
- Almost five years after the club's first ever match on April 2, 2006, only four players have remained on the Dynamo roster: Mike Chabala, Brian Ching, Brad Davis, and Eddie Robinson. In addition, former captain Wade Barrett is in his second year as a Dynamo assistant coach.