"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Depending on which part of the 2013 season the Houston Dynamo found themselves in, people had every reason to believe that the famous Dickens quote was written for this club. Every season is a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, yet for some reason both seemed exaggerated this year. It may have ultimately ended in disappointment on multiple fronts, but 2013 still has plenty of memories worth holding on to.
It was a time for goodbyes: Andre Hainault and Macoumba Kandji, both players in the Dynamo's run to the 2012 Cup final, left in the preseason for European destinations. Je-Vaughn Watson left up Interstate 45 en route to Dallas. Nathan Sturgis was traded to Colorado around Christmas last year (more on that later). We said goodbye to this Houston team's rocket, as Adam Moffat was traded to Seattle mid-season, and Bring Ching started to transfer his energies from the pitch to the front office, playing his final meaningful match on September 8th.
It was also a time for hellos: Eric Brunner came in, and Mike Chabala came back. In the other half of the Colorado trade, striker Omar Cummings continued the Dynamo "tradition" of Jamaican internationals on the roster. Andrew Driver was loaned here from Hearts, and that turned into a long term deal a few months later. Jason Johnson (another Jamaican) and Anthony Arena were drafted and made the roster. Bryan Salazar traded an Academy shirt for a first team one. After months of trying, the front office finally landed Boniek Garcia's Honduran teammate, Alex Lopez. Servando Carrasco came in from Seattle for Moffat, impressing many of us with his willingness to start right away.
The away record got a little better - but the home record wasn't spotless, like last year. They had several long stretches where they couldn't lose - but in the middle of the season, they had nearly two months where they couldn't win. The goals either came in droves, or not at all. They set good records, bad records, and seemed to do both with ease.
They had seven strikers on the roster, yet because of age and injuries, spent most of the season playing an attacking midfielder at the position. They had one of the league's deepest midfields, yet found themselves regularly playing midfielders up front or in the backline - when they were lucky enough to keep the actual midfield the same. They lost two good centerbacks over the course of six months, watched a highly touted left back get drafted and not earn a spot on the roster, and saw that lack of depth in defense come back to bite them several times. They had one of the top backup keepers in the league, only to have an injury force starter Tally Hall to play minutes in three different competitions.
Will Bruin seemed to regress in the number of goals he scored, yet seemed to play better in other aspects of the game. Brad Davis still had one of the best set piece legs around, yet the Dynamo had a lot of trouble scoring from set pieces. They took pretty good advantage of a light schedule early on, but nearly lost it all in the intense scramble near the end of the season.
Consistency was hard to come by: between injuries, suspensions, and plenty of international duty, it often seemed as if the Dynamo ran out a different starting XI every match. There was no happy middle - everyone was either out, or everyone was healthy. That's good when it's the latter, but when it's the former, many fans found themselves terrified thinking about what they might end up seeing on the pitch - and in the end, those terrified guesses might have been what happened. Everyone loses players from time to time, but it's no stretch to say that the Dynamo seemed to miss more of them for longer periods - and that, when all is said and done, played as much of a part in the season's course as any other situation they faced.
A rare win in Los Angeles. A 3-0 thrashing in a match that everyone outside of Houston felt would be a coronation for the league's new face. The first win in New York in club history. Another Halloween knockout round display by Will Bruin. The MLS record for league and overall unbeaten streaks at home. Late magic from Omar Cummings twice in the course of four days. These are all memories worth preserving, even if the ones we truly wanted to make remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Last second losses on missed calls. Four losses at home - three of them in matches where the home side didn't even seem to be in it at all. At least half a dozen matches and a group win in CONCACAF Champions League lost because of bizarre defensive miscues that came much more often than they should. The two months or so where no player on the pitch as a forward scored. These are also memories we'll keep, however much we want them to go away and never come back.
All these ups and downs led to a number of contradictions, many of which have been covered. In a season where fans have cried for more striker support, the leading scorer was a midfielder. On paper, this roster was one that had a chance to get it all done. While we know that things very rarely work out the way that they appear on paper, they still nearly did.
For all the naysayers, all the setbacks, all the highs and lows, when push came to shove, the Dynamo did what the Dynamo are always a threat to do. They stumbled into the postseason - only making it because other clubs slipped worse - and turned it on from there. They forced a Montreal meltdown, gave the Big Apple another big disappointment, and came to the cusp of a third straight berth in MLS Cup. There however, their luck finally ran out. The things they'd been struggling with all season: injuries, an inability to finish, defensive miscues and breakdowns, and a still-dismal (though slightly improved) record on the road - as well as an opposing side with the skill and talent to take advantage of it - ended the orange run for this year.
So what can we take from this, you ask? Several things. First: the home record. It wasn't spotless, but it was record-breaking, and BBVA Compass Stadium remains a fortress that many opponents prefer not to play in. Second: timing and knack. For all their regular season problems and woes, the Dynamo still somehow managed to turn it on late in the season. They fought injuries to prove the naysayers wrong a few more times. They might not have gotten where they'd wanted to get, but they still got much further than most everyone thought they would. Third: the core. Yes, Brian Ching is retiring. Bobby Boswell, Brad Davis, and all the rest of them are getting older. There are pieces that need to be added, badly. But only pieces. The core is there. Carrasco, Lopez, Boniek, Salazar, Johnson, Driver, Giles Barnes - if they can be kept, they can be built around. A striker here, a defender there - a few additions are what's needed, not a complete makeover.
Some new blood infused into this team, a strengthening of drive and philosophies, and an offseason to fix their problems should keep the Dynamo busy. It should also give them (and their fans) a little bit of hope leading into 2014. They're not there yet, but they're close. And if they get closer, the Dickensian contradictions might get further away. This may be the winter of despair, but the spring of hope beckons. 2013 is over. Pack it away and put it in storage - but then think ahead, not behind. The future lies ahead, and hope dictates that we look in that direction.
Get ready to dream, scream, and believe once more - the 2014 season will be upon us before we know it.