Houston Dynamo enter 2014 season opener fully confident in little-changed roster
Toronto FC's captures of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley and D.C. United's extreme makeover have claimed the headlines so far this year. But the Dynamo will accept flying under the radar in March so long as they are landing in full view of everyone come November.
Retention of last year's top performers, a couple of promising additions and the hope of better luck with injuries might only put the Dynamo on the fringe of the national media spotlight but should leave the club well-placed to challenge once again for MLS Cup in the intriguing Eastern Conference. The 2014 campaign kicks off on Saturday night at home to the New England Revolution (7:30 p.m. CT, TICKETS).
"The team has always been the priority for the Dynamo since before I came here. From the beginning the team has been the star player. And that philosophy has not really changed since day one," goalkeeper Tally Hall told HoustonDynamo.com.
"We focus on the team more than the individual. I think that's what's given us success in the past and that has continued to carry on this preseason and will be the same in this regular season."
Toronto and D.C. were by a distance the worst teams in last year's East but figure to be much more competitive this time around. At the other end of the standings, things were so tight that three of the five playoff berths were only settled on the final weekend of the regular season.
"I think the Eastern Conference got a lot stronger this year. If you think of the moves that D.C. made, obviously Toronto, they got better. Two teams that didn't make the playoffs last year will be serious contenders for playoff positions. Overall the league is always close and I think those two teams got stronger this year by adding the players that they did," head coach Dominic Kinnear told HoustonDynamo.com.
The Dynamo weren't the only team that opted against major squad surgery after a solid year. Supporters' Shield champions New York Red Bulls, MLS Cup winners Sporting Kansas City and playoff first-timers Montreal Impact (who replaced their head coach) each made few moves in the transfer market. In the Western Conference the same is true of 2011 and 2012 MLS champions the Los Angeles Galaxy and last year's runners up, Real Salt Lake.
"When I look at my team, if we're healthy and we're playing well I think we're a tough team to beat," said Kinnear. "The new guys have fitted in pretty good, I think Tony Cascio's had a good preseason and it's also been good to have guys like Alex Lopez and Andrew Driver to come in for a full preseason."
Kinnear is unable to select from a full roster on Saturday. According to the official injury report, Warren Creavalle (knee tendonitis), Servando Carrasco (ankle sprain) and Eric Brunner (ankle sprain) are unavailable. Their absences increase the likelihood that new arrivals Cascio and David Horst will make their Dynamo MLS debuts.
New England finished level on points with Houston in last year's Eastern Conference and were knocked out of the playoffs by SKC. Jay Heaps' side lost striker Juan Agudelo to Europe in the winter but still have an impressive array of young attacking talent. Only two players on their roster are aged over 30.
Among their new signings are the former Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Daigo Kobayashi and ex-SKC forward Teal Bunbury. But talented full-back Andrew Farrell and playmaker Lee Nguyen will miss the match at BBVA Compass Stadium through injury.
"Defensively they were very strong last year, on the attack they can do some good things, so I think they're one of the good teams this year," said Kinnear.
Named this week as a BBVA Compass brand ambassador, Hall said that he feels no extra pressure to act as a leader for the back line now that the influential veteran Bobby Boswell has left for the nation's capital.
The 28-year-old is entering his sixth season in Houston and his fourth as the first-choice goalkeeper. "I think I need to step up every year as I go on, and so it's not 'Bobby's gone I need to step up'. I feel like I need to step up anyway," he said.
"At the same time I feel that Corey [Ashe], Kofi [Sarkodie], myself, Jermaine [Taylor], we've all had a couple of years and it's like we've all come together, I feel this year more than in years past, and said: 'all right, we have a job to do'. And I think we're talking more in the games, we're talking more outside of training in a tactical sense.
"Everyone has stepped up this year and I don't think it's for one reason or another, it's because we're older, more veteran. We see what we did wrong last year, we know what went well last year and it's like we're building off another season. We're young enough that we're still fresh, still improving." With the Revolution also confident that they will be better than in 2013, Saturday night is the first test of Hall's belief that this is a Dynamo lineup of players in their prime.