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2011 Houston Dynamo Season Preview

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First Kick 2011 for the Houston Dynamo is on three days away and to continue to prepare our readers for the new season, myself and new writer Fuzion have been joined by Jordan Wise from SB Nation Houston to offer our thoughts. We each give our preferred projected lineup, thoughts on individual positions and answer some key questions about what to expect this year.

We encourage you to offer your thoughts and opinions and if you'd like to provide your project lineup and to answer any or all of the questions posed, post it via a FanPost so others can read your views on the Dynamo in 2011.

Check out the Dynamo Theory team's thoughts on the upcoming season after the jump


Zach's Projected Lineup & Thoughts:


Goalkeeper: Tally Hall should be the opening day starter but that doesn't mean that he's not being pushed. Tyler Deric has been very strong all pre-season and it look like both men are capable of being starters in MLS, which is a luxury for the Dynamo. That said, Hall was signed a couple seasons ago to take over for Pat Onstad when he retired and it's his job to lose.

Defense: We know Bobby Boswell will start in the central defense and I'm pretty confident that Jermaine Taylor will start beside him, but veteran Eddie Robinson is in the mix as well. Just who Kinnear puts on the field against Philadelphia is either a closely guarded secret or the head coach hasn't decided yet. Hunter Freeman seems the logical choice at right back given his experience but Kofi Sarkodie has looked capable so far as well. On the left side, Mike Chabala and Andrew Hainault have both been talked up for the position and while Chabala is probably the likely choice, there is no room for error from anyone on the back line. Plus, there's Jordan Graye as well...basically, Houston has options. After last season's struggles, Kinnear likely won't hesitate to make changes if he feels a player isn't doing the job he expects.

Midfield: Brad Davis will start on the right, Geoff Cameron will stop at the top of the diamond and Lovel Palmer will sit in the defensive mid role. That leaves the left side of Kinnear midfield diamond. Colin Clark would be your starter if he was ready but he's not expected back until April. So the battle for a starting spot likely comes down to Danny Cruz and Corey Ashe. Both have pace, both have show the ability to make plays, but Ashe tends to be a little stronger defensively. I think you'll see them interchanged depending on the opponent until Clark is healthy.

Forwards: Brian Ching will start as long as he's healthy. Who will join him up to is the big question. Jason Garey has made a case for the job and so has Will Bruin. Cam Weaver hasn't looked as good as the two of them, but that's not a shot at Cam, the competition has just been extremely tight. Dominic Oduro was added to the mix last week after testing the waters in Europe, so he gives the Dynamo a speed option up front. My gut feeling is that Ching and Garey will start to open the season.


Fuzion's Lineup & Thoughts:

Dom is known for his 4-4-2, however I think this season we will see a slight shift from a 4-4-2 into what I lovingly call a 4-1-2-2-1, which is 4 defenders, 1 central defending mid, the two wingers, the attacking mid and the first offset striker, and then the top striker. The projected lineup and positioning:


I think it's easy to say the right wing position, left and right back positions, the attacking mid and first offset striker positions are all liable to change at any point, with so many pieces movable depending on needs at the time.


Jordan's Lineup & Thoughts:


It was known all off-season that there were three key areas that the Houston Dynamo needed to fix; a weak defense, goal-scoring forwards, and an impact central-attacking midfielder. While the expected starting XI halfway addresses those concerns, the updated roster shows that two of those three areas have been fixed. With regards to the starting line-up, there are a few things that are certain: Brian Ching will start when healthy, Brad Davis, Lovel Palmer, and Geoff Cameron are locks in the midfield, Bobby Boswell will be the starting center back, and Tally Hall will start in goal.

The other five positions are still up in the air. Until Colin Clark returns to full fitness, Danny Cruz will likely start at right wing with Corey Ashe being brought on late in games. The only wild cards with this position are whether or not Francisco Navas Cobo, Josue Soto, or Alex Dixon are used at some point in the season and if rookie defender Kofi Sarkodie's speed and attacking instincts will land him a substitutes spot in the midfield.

Most of the team's questions heading into the off-season were aimed at the second worst defense in the league. Dominic KInnear and co. answered those questions after offloading some of the older players in favor of younger, more athletic talent. The departure of Richard Mulrooney, Adrian Serioux, and Ryan Cochrane made room for Hunter Freeman, Jordan Graye, Jermaine Taylor, and Kofi Sarkodie. Eddie Robinson, Andrew Hainault, and Mike Chabala are all still around, but there is competition for the starting spots. Jermaine Taylor, with his experience and pre-season displays seems poised to join Bobby Boswell in the center of the defense. Hunter Freeman looks to have taken the starting right back spot from Hainault, though strong showings from Sarkodie could see Freeman moved the left back position, pushing 26 year-old Chabala to the substitute's bench. Robinson and Hainault are likely to be starters when the schedule becomes more congested, and will bring experience and the desire to become regular starters with them. Experienced defender Graye is a bit of a wildcard, but will continue challenging for a spot.

The (temporary) retirement of Pat Onstad opened the door for young ‘keepers Tally Hall and Tyler Deric to fight for the starting spot between the pipes. Hall won the fight, but Deric proved he has the skills to pressure Hall and be a goalkeeper for the future. The acquisition of Evan Newton brings depth to the goalkeeping group, though the first-year goalie is not likely to see too much action.

The only other point of real debate left is who should start alongside captain Brian Ching. While Oduro may not be a popular choice, the Ghanaian has MLS experience and is the only forward with true speed. Oduro may be best suited as a substitute who can stretch the defense, but I would not be too surprised if Kinnear starts the fast forward at the start of the season. Now, if Oduro doesn't start? Well, that's when things get really fun.

After his hat trick against SMU in the preseason, rookie Will Bruin is making a strong case for a starting spot. It's not too often rookie players are relied upon so quickly, but Coach Kinnear has to like what he sees in the young forward. Jason Garey, the former Columbus Crew forward, also has impressed in preseason and could fill in as a starter when needed. The one forward who has failed to live up to expectations (two seasons running now) is Cam Weaver. The lanky forward has been inconsistent, at best, and continues to frustrate fans. Weaver seems to be one of those players who can play well when he gets his confidence, but he must find that confidence somewhere quickly if he wants to see minutes for this Dynamo team.


Which new player(s) will have biggest impact?:


Zach: Jermaine Taylor and Hunter Freeman. While the Dynamo offense had some issues at times last season, it was the defense that was the achilles heel for Houston. The addition of Taylor and Freeman give Kinnear two experienced defenders that should held solidify the back line. Taylor is a big, strong defender who is good in the air and very calm on the ball. Freeman is positionally strong and can get forward and join the attack, something Kinnear likes to have his fullbacks do with regularity. If the defense can return to form, the offense will find goals.

Fuzion: I think Jason Garey will have the biggest impact for the Dynamo this season. He is one of the stronger strikers in my mind, who has sort of faded into the background with the drafting of blue chipper Will Bruin. He has a solid nose for the target and finishes solidly.

Jordan: This has to be a three-way toss up between Geoff Cameron, Will Bruin, and Jermaine Taylor. I think Taylor may edge out the lead because he can help shore up what was a terrible defense that cost the team multiple games. Far too many times the Dynamo gave up points late in games last season, but it looks like Taylor could be the player who, alongside Boswell, tightens tings up and gets the defense back to its hard nosed style of years past. Bruin looks to be one of those rare rookies who comes into the league and can immediately make an impact. He was an unexpected pick-up in the SuperDraft and has shown nothing but class and poise. On top of that, he is scoring goals and the preseason from open play, something the Dynamo struggled with last season. I know Geoff Cameron isn't a new player (and I hate when people say getting someone back from injury is "like a new signing"), but Cameron's return from his PCL injury last season could make or break Houston's season. Cameron has looked good in preseason and seems more comfortable in his attacking role. He will have to create attacking runs and learn how to control the game from the midfield, but, if he can do that and score more than a few goals, he will be the biggest impact player this season.


Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?:


Zach: Pat Onstad. Nothing against Hall and Deric but losing your veteran goalkeeper is never an easy situation for a team to deal with. Fortunately the Dynamo knew this day was coming and have been preparing. Other veterans will have to step in to the leadership role that Onstad filled but the key the season might be how quickly Hall, whom I expect to start, get comfortable with his defense and how well they communicate. There will be a couple bumps in the road but things should work out fine in the end.

Fuzion: Losing your starting keeper after so many years is tough for any team to absorb.  There will continue to be growing pains and Hall and Deric stake their claim to be the top Dynamo keeper.

Jordan: It may be a bit harsh to say none, but that really seems to be the case with the Dynamo ahead of the 2011 season. The departure of a number of older and ineffective players helps this team in a number of ways. First, it opened up valuable roster spots and even more valuable salary cap space. Secondly, it gives the younger guys an opportunity to show their skills and fight for playing time; competition always brings out the best in players. And lastly, it created an environment where some of the young guys from the SuperDraft, Supplemental Draft, and Dynamo Academy system can come in and get actual playing time.


At what point is this season considered success (ie. Playoffs, MLS Cup)?:


Zach: Playoffs, nothing less will do. After missing the playoffs for the first time last season, getting back in the mix for the MLS Cup is the goal, plain and simple. Kinnear and Chris Canetti have spent the off-season retooling this roster around getting younger and more athletic. Not making the playoffs would be a huge failure in the eyes of everyone involved with the Dynamo.

Fuzion: Anytime you go into a MLS season, you expect to finish at least top 4 or 5 in your division, but with the move to the Eastern Conference, anything less than top 2 or 3 in my opinion is a failure. As a team, you have to go in anticipating an MLS Cup run, and with this team it's entirely possible.

Jordan: After last season's disappointing record and missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the 2011 season will be considered a success if the Dynamo can make and challenge in the playoffs. Now that the team is in the Eastern Conference, along with the new playoff structure, the Dynamo should have little problem making the playoffs, but only time will tell if the team has enough to challenge and make a MLS Cup run. Ultimately, the most important mark of success for this season will be if the team can win games and create a buzz ahead of the new Houston Dynamo stadium opening in 2012.


Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?


Zach: I'm not sure that Brad Davis' performance will be indicative, but there is no player more essential to the success of the Dynamo. The offense runs through Davis and when he's on the field, the team creates goals and are dangerous on set pieces. With Davis off the field, it really feels like the offense is a little lost. Is Davis stays healthy and effective, the Dynamo will score goals. If he's lost for an extended amount of time, someone will have to step up or things could get very dicey.

Fuzion: Brad Davis. If Davis can continue his impressive preseason stretch into the regular season, the Dynamo will be well on their way to top in the Eastern Conference. His play and how he responds to adversity will be indicative of how the team on the whole will respond. This year the Dynamo are Brad Davis' team, but something has to be said for Brian Ching as well.

Jordan: Brad Davis, no questions about it. The veteran winger is the key to Houston's attack. In the off-season, Davis scored goals from set pieces, the penalty spot, and open play, along with creating a number of assists. Whenever he was subbed off so that Coach Kinnear could take a look at other players, the Dynamo offense looked slightly impotent and significantly robust. If Davis can stay healthy, then the Dynamo have a real chance at scoring goals and winning games. If he goes down with a season-threatening injury the way Cameron did in 2010, the it could be another painful season for Dynamo fans.


Zach's Question: Can Geoff Cameron be an effective central attacking midfielder?

I think the answer to this question is more about when than if. Cameron has the tools and has shown flashes of brilliance in the pre-season, the key is going to be consistently doing the job game in and game out. Cameron has to be dangerous and effective in order to prevent defenses from trying to key on Brad Davis. The more directions the Dynamo can attack from the better and if opposing teams are having to concern themselves with Cameron getting space and either finding open teammates or scoring goals himself, it will make everyone else around him that much better. This is still a work in progress. Missing so much of last season prevented Cameron from being able to settle in to the new role so the pressure will be on to make that position is as fast as possible.


Jordan's Question: Should Brian Ching still start for Houston?

I know this question will anger longtime fans of the Dynamo, those who feel that the team's captain can do no wrong and should play every minute of every game, but I think it has to be asked. Last season Ching picked up a series of injuries, culminating in a hamstring injury that forced him to miss a spell of games and, likely, was the prime reason Bob Bradley did not take him to the World Cup in South Africa.

There's no denying that, when healthy, Ching is a fantastic player and is the lifeblood and leader of the Dynamo. The problem is, he's not 100% healthy all the time, and is looking like he won't be 100% fit most of the time. It's only preseason, but Ching already has picked up another hamstring injury and has missed a number of practices, scrimmages, and friendlies. If the forward continues to be plagued with hamstring issues, then questions will have to be asked about Ching's health and if something structurally is wrong with his hammies.

So what's the answer to the question? Well, I think Ching should start, when he is 100% fit, but that means he cannot and will not start every game. If anything, I think that Will Bruin and company have shown that they can score goals and win games with Ching out of the line-up, something that should comfort Coach Kinnear. So what does that mean long term for Ching? Well, I think his time this season has to be limited to the big games. Think of it as a role like Ryan Giggs of Manchester United. The 37 year-old winger still has skills and influences every game he plays, but at his age he cannot play every single game. So, he is played in major games and in times where injuries have thinned out the squad. Is it hard for a competitor like him to not start every game? Sure, every major athlete wants to play every minute of every game, but at some point, as both an aging player (or an injury-plagued player) and as a leader, you have to recognize that you are more important in certain games and at certain times at 100% than you are at 75% all the time. So, the big question is, can Brian Ching handle not starting every game?