It's that time of year again, guys. Temperatures are trying to warm up, birds and flowers seem to be beginning their return to life, and all around us are the signs that spring is in the air. With spring, of course, comes the return of MLS play. At this point in the year, everyone's still in contention (yes, even Toronto FC and Real Salt Lake), and nobody should have to think about pressing that panic button for a few months.
With the start of a new season comes many things: the start of the Houston Dynamo's Eastern Conference title defense, a chance to move forward in the CONCACAF Champions League, the US Open Cup, and most importantly, a shot at that third star. Everyone involved here - the fans, the players, the front office - has the drive and the urge to see that come to pass, but that's many months in the future. It's going to be a long road to get there (which is part of the reason why my contribution to the Dynamo music poll was Rush's "Marathon" - a theme I'll return to off and on throughout the season), but the Dynamo are probably prime contenders to do so.
If you want to reach the stars, however, you have to start on the ground and wait for liftoff. The Dynamo will lift off this Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium against a familiar foe: D.C. United. The team from the nation's capital was the Dynamo's foe in the Eastern Conference Championship, and Houston's 3-1 victory in the first leg last October not only paved the way for the team's advancement to the MLS Cup, it put the cap on what was an undefeated season at home - one that started with a 1-0 victory over DCU in the first game in their new home. All of these are things that DCU would love to forget, but the schedulers for MLS didn't oblige them.
Keep in mind, this is a different DC United than the one that the Dynamo saw four and a half months ago. Andy Najar (transferred to Belgian champions Anderlecht) is the major departure, while Brazilian midfielder Raphael Augusto and Guatemalan headache-slash-striker Carlos Ruiz are among those who have joined the club's mostly intact core.
The Dynamo have also been revamped, as has been covered in depth on this blog. Colin Clark is out, picked up by the LA Galaxy. Andre Hainault and Macoumba Kandji moved to Europe. Je-Vaughn Watson moved about 250 miles north to FC Dallas. In their place are names like Omar Cummings (picked up from Colorado for reserve player Nathan Sturgis), Eric Brunner (picked up from the Portland Timbers for allocation money), and Andrew Driver (on loan from Hearts until June, signed by Dynamo for a few years once that ends).
The Dynamo locked down the entire Starting XI from last season's MLS Cup final, managing to only have to deal with reserve spots. Yes, they had to find a replacement for Calen Carr, who tore his ACL in the final, but Carr will return during the season, meaning that once he does, that full XI will be available. Consistency is a big reason why the Dynamo have had the success they've had during their tenure in Houston, and that consistency should help them a great deal this season.
But again, that's all in the future. Let's not get ahead of ourselves - the Dynamo still have everything to prove from day one. And day one happens to be Saturday. There's not much that can be predicted at the moment, as I've found that in any sport, preseason play does not a season make (or break). The preseason titles are nice, but nobody would rather win one of those than serious silverware. So we can safely throw a lot of that out the window - at least where the team is concerned. Individual performances certainly can carry over to the regular season, but even that isn't completely certain.
So what can we predict? Well, unlike their squad from the conference finals, DCU will have a completely healthy Dwayne De Rosario, and his return here to Houston is always something to watch. DC fans will have hope that Nick DeLeon can continue his development, and Bill Hamid is one of the top goalkeepers in the league - when he can keep his temper. D.C. United was a solid side, and I expect that hasn't changed in the offseason.
For the Dynamo, it's looking like an already stacked midfield might be getting even better. Driver has shown flashes of talent (much like Barnes) marred by injuries - if he can find form like his countryman has, it would be a boost. Luis Camargo is in a preseason form that looks more like 2011 than 2012, and smiling Honduran Boniek Garcia and English playmaker Giles Barnes now have a full season in which to shine. Up front, Cummings hopes to return to a 2010 form that included 14 goals, and Will Bruin goes into his third year looking to improve on his tally of 16.
Tally Hall and Tyler Deric are back in goal, and the backup keeper has proved that he can be a solid stopper between the posts. Hainault's loss hurt the backline, but it's still a strong (albeit not as deep as many fans would like) back four. Kinnear has the options to play in several formations, and the performance last season showed that sometimes, change is good.
In 2012, the Dynamo opened BBVA Compass Stadium and turned it into a fortress that would please Marshal Vauban, posting a home record of 11-0-6. While we'd love to see that streak continue, for the moment, it's in the past. While the Dynamo would love to extend the streak, that probably won't be the foremost thought on players' minds come game time. Bobby Boswell admitted "A successful year is MLS Cup. That's it. That's what you play for the whole year." That's what's on their minds. Points at home would extend their streak, but more importantly, it helps the team to that goal.
So we've come to it. 2012, with its roller coaster of joy and heartbreak, is behind us. This is a new day. A new year. A clean sheet. Saturday night, under the lights, the Dynamo will play DCU as that quest for a third star begins. I don't know about you, but I'm ready for that quest to start. It's time. Welcome back.