Houston's training camp this year is unlike any other in the team's history. For the first time since the hectic 2006 campaign, Houston is not preparing for CONCACAF elimination rounds; the starting midfield is the most unsettled it has ever been; and injuries both old and new have plagued the squad.
For all that, however, the Dynamo have their eyes on the March 27 league opener at rival FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, even if it is five weeks away.
"We've run into a lot of injuries recently, in the last couple days, and I think that's hurt us a little bit in terms of where guys are at, but I think our focus is March 27 up in Dallas, and that's our sole purpose right now," veteran goalkeeper Pat Onstad said. "We don't have to focus on CONCACAF and try to jump in there early. We're still far from the finished product, but hopefully we'll be ready by March 27."
Injuries include rehab for Kevin Harmse, acquired in the offseason from Chivas USA, has yet to fully participate in drills, while Richard Mulrooney, continues to recover from last summer's knee surgery. Additional knocks to Andrew Hainault, Luis Angel Landín, and Craig Waibel and national-team callups for Geoff Cameron, Brian Ching, and Brad Davis have kept the Dynamo from any sort of lineup consistency.
Those absences, however, have provided plenty of playing time for rookies and trialists hoping to impress head coach Dominic Kinnear and earn a spot on the squad. This Dynamo group is unsettled perhaps more than any other in the team's short history, with both senior and developmental roster slots available.
"Everybody that's here is trying to first-off make the team and then contribute, and you don't know if the guy next to you is going to be around all year or if you will be," Mulrooney said.
Trialists Khadim Diouf, and Blessing Kaku all saw significant time in the first three scrimmages but were let go this week and will not make next week's trip to Florida. French midfielder Léandre Griffit will go to Orlando trying to prove he can contribute to the Dynamo this year, while younger players Sammy Appiah, Peter Maciel, Francisco Navas, and David Walker are trying to earn a roster spot as well.
With the Dynamo's history of slow starts in MLS play often attributed to their participation in CONCACAF play early in the season, Dynamo players hope their single-minded focus on MLS play will yield positive results this year. Onstad cautioned, however, against overconfidence.
"I think in some respects it's nice, because we don't feel pressure to be ready right away," Onstad said. "In other respects, we've got to be careful and not to be complacent so that all of a sudden the season is upon us and we're not ready."
Anxious to get back into action, Mulrooney said the Dynamo are on track to gauge their progress at the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando February 25-27 in which Houston will face New York in the semifinals.
"I think we're exactly where we're supposed to be," Mulrooney said. "We've won against college teams and won handily. There would be concerns if we didn't win those games or, more importantly, if we didn't play well, but I thought we played pretty well, with the exception of maybe one half. Come Orlando time, those games are going to be big because it's the competition we're going to be playing all year long, and we'll see how we've done in preseason - if we're up to the level or if we've fallen behind, but I think we're above the curve right now."