It's the start of the 2014 season, and I couldn't be more excited.
Here comes The Differential, our new series of posts from Dynamo Theory, looking at what's ailing the men in orange as we progress throughout the year.
This entry is meant to prime the pump before the year. I'll go through what I think are the top 5 biggest topics - both good and band - that will affect our season, and give you my prediction for the year.
Most important, however, is what you do with the information. I urge you - if you have a problem with my points - to vehemently disagree with me in the comments or on Twitter (@CiudadDeClutch). I'll include your thoughts throughout the season (as I did below).
Similarly, feel free to heap praise on me. I could use the boost.
So, here are my top 5 "problems" facing Houston in 2014, in no particular order:
1. No CCL
This, as I will discuss briefly in the Season Prediction below, is mostly a good thing. Without the distraction and exhaustion that comes with the CCL, Houston can focus on the Supporter's Shield - or at least a high seed for the Cup.
However, this is also a bad thing when it comes to recruitment and development.
Two of our most recent acquisitions are Hondurans who we met initially in the CCL. Players who to come to MLS are looking for exposure, quality of play, and a chance to win. Houston fits the latter two, but without the prospect of International competition, will our ability to lure big name Central American players to Houston suffer? I think so. Now, it's unclear whether we have any interest in signing another DP, but its something to consider.
Perhaps of more pressing concern is the loss of a competition used 50% of the time as a training ground for younger players. Without it, Houston is forced to use only the US Open Cup for developing younger stars (and, of course, Pittsburgh on a larger basis). How long will we stay in the Open Cup? Probably as long as Dom wants to, which may mean a deeper run than usual in a tournament that is largely pointless, if not completely lacking in historical significance.
2. International Duty for Davis and OBG
With the upcoming World Cup, there may be periods throughout the season where we will be missing our two best midfielders. Will we be able to cope? If anything, last year was a good dry run in terms of international absences. Boniek Garcia, in particular, got a good taste of what it meant to miss MLS games and come back in need of wins. As Darrell Lovell's recent piece discussed, OBG is ready to give 100% at all times. The amount left in the tank when he returns, however, is the big question.
Meanwhile, in June and July we will be without these two stars. Can some of our younger players step up and mitigate our losses? That will require Warren Creavalle, Alex Lopez, and Tony Cascio to make a mark in the summer months. Cascio seems poised to break out this year, and Creavalle has shown flashes in the past, but Lopez has done little to encourage the orange faithful.
How are we going to get our strikers on form, or find someone who can put the ball in the back of the net regularly?
I've read every ranking of MLS strikers written over the last month, and our favorite Dancing Bear, Will Bruin, isn't found on any of them. Despite his excellent 2012, last season was disappointing. Couple that with the oft-injured Omar Cummings, and you got a forward line sorely lacking consistent contribution.
But with a couple months to improve, Bruin and Cummings look ready to take MLS by storm. How they link up throughout the season, and how healthy our Jamaican forward can stay, will ultimately determine their success.
4. Back Line
Bobby Boswell is gone. This is a sad thing.
David Horst and Eric Brunner are competing for a starting spot. That is an excellent thing.
Who will win the starting spot is irrelevant, to me. What I care about is fluidity and motivation among the back line. Have a bad game? There is someone who can replace you. Simple as that. I'm sick of seeing Tally Hall consistently required to save our necks.
It's time for one of these two guys to step up and make a tangible difference alongside Jermaine Taylor, Corey Ashe, and Kofi Sarkodie.
For what it's worth, I see Horst beating out Brunner eventually, as MIBS noted last week.
5. Where does Barnes fit?
I love Giles Barnes. He was, aside from OBG, my favorite player last year. But I can't figure out where he will fit into this new team. Will he fall into an attacking midfield role behind Bruin/Cummings, or will he unseat one of them up top? Is he a good enough passer to be the AM like badkins described in last weeks intro? I think so.
Badkins003 agrees, and had him in his starting XI as the top of a midfield diamond to start the season.
How well Dom mixes together his best attacking assets will, quite obviously, determine how well Bruin and Cummings (see above) link up.
On the large scale, this season's finish will be determined by how high a seed we can get by the end of the season.
What I mean is that, realistically, I don't see us winning the Supporter's Shield.
Luckily, I do see us winning he MLS Cup.
This is the first year in a long, long time that we have been without significant distractions. No CCL means no "win-or-go-home" matches a week before playoffs. It also means less travel, and more time to rest despite International duty for our players. We've gotten pretty used to late surges up the table in recent years, but what will it be like if we surge early and often this season?
I see us coming just shy of the Supporter's Shield. There's no data behind that, I just think this will be a year where we do a lot of things right consistently, but just aren't at the "talent" level (at least at this point) of other perennial contenders. Portland and NYRB look a lot sexier when it comes to a sustained push for a 1-seed, having already converted potential into results.
That supposed "talent gap", however, has never come into play during the playoffs. With a higher seed, avoiding the play-in match, we'll have more energy to avoid such tired displays as we saw in the first leg against SKC this year. After that, it's just the normal pattern of winning at home and drawing away before we reach the Cup, where anything can happen.
So, there it is, Houston. We have a team with a few questions leveled at them, but plenty of potential heading into 2014. What do you think of these 5 points? Are there other things that concern you more? Let's hear it below.