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How will Houston cope with losing its starting central midfield pair?

So close, yet so far away. No phrase sums up the Houston Dynamo in 2009 better. Coming up short in the CCL and in the playoffs won’t sit well with a franchise that has made winning a habit, but 2010 will provide some new challenges for Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo as they must replace two international midfielders in their lineup. To do it, the Dynamo will look to a combination of some up and coming young players and a collection of experienced veterans. Finding the right balance will be the key, but everyone in MLS should know better than to underestimate Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo.

Last season: One can’t blame Dominic Kinnear if 2009 left a bad taste in his mouth. Despite injuries to key starters and the looming departure of Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden, Kinnear’s team still finished second in the Western Conference and if not for a questionably disallowed goal and a troublesome electrical grid, they likely would have been playing for the MLS Cup for the third time in four years.

Between the league, CONCACAF Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup it was a busy year for the team and one that forced Kinnear to lean heavily upon his youngsters. The likes of Mike Chabala, Andrew Hainault and Geoff Cameron all stepped up for the Dynamo after veterans Richard Mulrooney and Eddie Robinson were lost to season-ending injuries. The maturation by fire will likely service the team well in 2010, giving them some added depth and experience in critical positions.

Dearly Departed:

Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark – Losing two starters is tough enough for any team, but losing two regular international stars is even tougher. The importance of Holden and Clark to the Dynamo is well documented and how they replace these two will be the biggest story surrounding the club in 2010.

New Faces:

Francisco Navas Cobo – He’s an 18-year old signing from the youth academy with tremendous ability and potential. While his impact this season will likely be minimal, he will be a name to watch in the coming seasons.

Adrian Serioux – The return of Serioux provides flexibility and depth in the midfield and defense. He’s a proven veteran with something to prove after his fallout in Toronto.

Lovel Palmer – The Jamaican international joined late in the offseason. The 24-year-old will provide an option in the middle of the park.

Projected Starters: Attempting to project who will be Dominic Kinnear’s lineup is tricky. He has a lot of depth and experience on the backline and I expect we’ll see a variety of combinations before he settles on his preferred lineup. There is no question that several positions are open to debate.

Pat Onstad - The ageless keeper returns for another season between the pipes for the Dynamo. He’s been on of the best, if not the best, keeper in MLS for as long as anyone can remember. He anchors and leads the Dynamo defense and should have another stellar season.

Eddie Robinson – One of the remaining original Dynamo returns after missing most of 2009 with a micro fracture in his knee. Robinson has been outstanding in the preseason and figures to retake his spot anchoring the center of the Dynamo defense.

Andrew Hainault – Hainault made the most of the opportunity he was given last season and became a regular starter by the end of the year. Expect continued improvement from the young Canadian.

Mike Chabala – He broke through last season in his fourth season with the Dynamo receiving regular playing time and giving the Dynamo a solid option at fullback. We could see Chabala begin to move up in to more of a midfield role this season as well.

Ryan Cochrane – A member of the 06/07 MLS Champion teams, Cochrane returned to the club in 2009 and provided much needed depth at the back. He will likely start but with the depth Kinnear looks to now have at the back, anything is possible.

Geoff Cameron – We know Cameron will be in the midfield, but we aren’t sure just where he’ll be deployed yet. The addition of Serioux means we could see Cameron in a more attacking role.

Richrd Mulrooney – After missing most of last season to injury, Mulrooney is back and will provide leadership and experience in the midfield. How his knees hold up will dictate how much time get gets and how effective he is, but fortunately the Dynamo have depth in the midfield.

Brad Davis – The man with the wicked left foot will be leaned upon heavily to help fill the role left by the departed Stuart Holden. Expect the Dynamo offense to run through Davis.

Adrian Serioux – He can slot right into the Clark role for the Dynamo in a central/defensive midfield role. Should allow Cameron and Davis to be more adventurous on the attack.

Brian Ching – If he’s healthy, he’s starting. Enough said.

Dominic Oduro – Kinnear showed a willingness to start and use Oduro for his pace. Oduro’s finishing has always left a lot to be desired but you can rarely question his effort and ability to create problems for the opposing defense.

Best of the rest:
 
Cam Weaver – He’s had a strong preseason and if Oduro can’t finish his chances, I expect you’ll see Weaver getting the bulk of the starts.

Bobby Boswell, Wade Barret and Craig Waibel – These veterans will provide depth and coverage for the defense. Expect to see spot starts from these three throughout the year to help balance the load and keep guys fresh.

Corey Ashe/Brian Mullen/Danny Cruz/Lovel Palmer – Midfield depth and potential starters depending on the type of formation Kinnear wants to use and what he is trying to accomplish. Ashe offers great pace down the left side.

Luis Angel Landin – Enough talent to be a starter but he’s got to start turning the potential into consistent performance.

Francisco Navas Cobo – Young talented player with a lot of pace…but he’s only 18. From all accounts he was one of the best players on the field at the Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. No need to rush him, but don’t be surprised if he gets some first team time at some point during the season.



Season Storylines:

How will the Dynamo deal with the departure of Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden?

This is the BIG question hanging over the club this season. The departure of Clark to Germany and Holden to England leave open two starting positions in the midfield. Whomever Dominic Kinnear chooses to put in those spots will dictate heavily how the Dynamo season plays out.

Brad Davis will be key, but the real question is who will work with him. The return of Adrian Serioux provides some cover as he can slot in to a defensive midfield role if needed. More importantly, Serioux’s arrival means we might see Geoff Cameron move forward into an attacking midfield role. This is clearly where the Dynamo will need the most help with no Stuart Holden pressing forward on the attack. Cameron has the tools to play on the attack but it won’t happen overnight, but any Dynamo fan should be excited at the potential of a Davis/Cameron pairing in the midfield. Even if Cameron isn’t ready to fully embrace the new role, he’ll be on the pitch in some capacity. The likes of Corey Ashe, Danny Cruz and Brian Mullen provide attacking midfield options should Cameron need time to work in to the role. You can’t simply replace players the caliber of Clark and Holden but it seems clear the Dynamo have the pieces they need to come very close to doing just that.

Will Luis Landin finally live up to his potential?
 
There is no single player whose improved play could benefit the Dynamo more on and off the pitch than Luis Angel Landin. The talented young forward signed with Houston as a designated player late last season from Cruz Azul in Mexico, but failed to make an impact in limited time. A lot is expected from Landin this season and his impact for the club both in scoring goals and attracting fans to the club could be huge. There is no doubt about Landin’s potential, but it’s time for him to step up. So far in the preseason he has not looked fit and it’s already struggling thanks to a sprained ankle, not a good sign for his future with the club.

Predicted Placement: It’s tough trying to predict exactly how the 2010 season will play out for the Dynamo. The league schedule is balanced both in the fact that each team now plays each other twice and in the fact that the Dynamo has four league matches every month except May and June. May will prove the big test for the team with six matches, including a run of four matches in 13 days to start the month. With MLS limiting league games during the group stages of the World Cup, the busy month of May will go a long way in setting the table for the playoff run. Despite the loss of Clark and Holden, it’s tough to bet against Dominic Kinnear who has proved to be on the best and most consistent mangers in MLS. It’s tough to bet against the Dynamo finishing in the top two the West and returning to the playoffs.

Did You Know? Dominic Kinnear replaced Frank Yallop as manager of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2004. The Earthquakes finished 9-10-11, fourth place in the West. Since then, Kinnear has never had a losing record in a season and his teams have not finished lower than second in the Western Conference.

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