Stoke City are not only starting a new season, they are entering a new era. So there will be plenty of focus on BBVA Compass Stadium when the Dynamo host the English Premier League club next Wednesday in Mark Hughes' first match as manager.
The appointment of Hughes in May has added intrigue and novelty to a team that has long been one of the most solid and consistent in the Premier League.
Any coaching change brings adjustments. But at Stoke that sense is heightened since Hughes' predecessor, Tony Pulis, was one of the longest-tenured managers in the turbulent world of English soccer. Pulis took charge in 2006, having managed the club in a previous spell from 2002-2005.
So as the team continues its preparations ahead of its first league match of the campaign, away to Liverpool on August 17, there is a feeling of renewal and opportunity that goes far beyond the annual fresh start that every pre-season brings.
The team's visit to Houston on the opening leg of their U.S. tour for the BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup next Wednesday (8 p.m. CT, TICKETS) is the first big step in that process.
Hughes, who was a tough and gifted striker for clubs including Manchester United, Barcelona and Chelsea, is using pre-season to imprint his own tactical ideas. Under Pulis, Stoke were known for their direct, physical style, especially in front of their famously-loud home crowd. From comments reported in the Stoke Sentinel, it seems that Hughes wants to prioritize an attacking, creative approach.
"Some things will come off for us and other things won't. There will be occasions when you make mistakes because that happens with change, but I think people will see we are trying to play a certain way and create more opportunities. I have always tried to create teams that dictate to the opposition and if we can do that we will have a good season," he said.
"The group is really strong. There is a fantastic work ethic and that's been instilled by Tony before I came here. That gives us a base and what I want to do is allow a bit more opportunity to express themselves in the final third."
There is plenty of attacking talent on the roster, such as wingers Michael Kightly and Matthew Etherington, former Liverpool midfielder Charlie Adam and England international Peter Crouch. And there are three American internationals at the club: Brek Shea, Maurice Edu and ex-Dynamo star Geoff Cameron.
Powerful forward Kenwyne Jones will be familiar with the surroundings if he plays: he started and scored at BBVA Compass Stadium for Trinidad & Tobago in their Gold Cup win over Honduras last Monday. Afterwards, he praised the Dynamo's new arena.
"It was a good atmosphere," he told HoustonDynamo.com. "It's nice, I know it's newly-built. It's good for teams to have their own stadium. I'm happy that MLS is making steps to have their own stadiums - with this kind of facility the sport can only grow."
Dynamo midfielder Adam Moffat is relishing the chance to face players from one of the planet's best leagues. "It's always good to see different styles of play, how they play over there and how it matches up to MLS," he said.
"It's always good to challenge yourself against better players and those guys are in the Premier League for a reason. It'll be good, if I'm in there I'll get stuck in. They've got a new manager this year so it might be a little bit different in the style of play, but it should be a good game."
Houston winger Andrew Driver was born about 50 miles north of Stoke, near Manchester. "They're obviously one of the top teams in the Premier League nowadays and as a professional you want to play the best teams you can. It's a big game for us, something as players we look forward to. It's their preseason but they'll want to get off to winning ways as well so it'll be a good entertaining game, I think," he said.
"The stadium we have is first-class and I think they'll be surprised at the level we can play at. Obviously Geoff Cameron's there, he knows exactly how good a team we can be. It won't be easy for them. I don't think the EPL plays massively different to the way we play. It should be a good game to watch."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.