The weather was wintry at Houston Sports Park on Monday but spring is closer than it seems. It is 65 days since the end of last season and only 41 days until the first kick of the 2014 MLS campaign. For the players, it is time to get back to work.
And despite the chilly and blustery conditions they were clearly happy to be back in training. For every soccer team the start of preseason is an annual ritual of renewal, a time for pure optimism and unchecked hope. Anything seems possible, because at this time of year, it truly is.
While the emotions are the same every January, the cast of characters always changes. Both club president Chris Canetti and head coach Dominic Kinnear are confident that this year’s roster is an upgrade over the 2013 crop, who finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and reached the Conference final where they bowed out of the playoffs to Sporting Kansas City, the eventual MLS Cup winners.
Evolution not revolution is the Dynamo ethos, logically enough for a franchise that has only ever had one head coach and which has enjoyed consistent success. So even though the club fell short of its target of winning the championship, there was no intention of giving the squad a radical winter makeover.
As Canetti pointed out, although there were dips in form during the campaign, last season's side performed strongly when Kinnear had all of his key men available. "Why would you shake it up? In order to make big moves, splashy moves, you've got to break up that core, do something differently," he said.
"We don't need to go make dramatic changes. What we've also talked about practically speaking is there's three players on this roster that we didn't get much out of last year because they were either injured or kind of came late in the season and never [became regulars] and that would be Omar Cummings, Alex López and Servando Carrasco.
"And I think going into this preseason we almost look at them as new guys, additions to the team because the expectations on those players will be that we'll get more minutes, get more productivity, so we almost look at them as additions.”
Headlining the truly new arrivals are winger Tony Cascio, on loan from the Colorado Rapids, and former Portland Timbers defender David Horst. Forward Mark Sherrod, defender AJ Cochran and goalkeeper Michael Lisch were picked in this month’s SuperDraft.
Forwards Cam Weaver and Calen Carr have left, as has veteran defender Bobby Boswell, now with D.C. United. Club stalwart Brian Ching has retired and assumed a front office role as managing director of the newly-formed Houston Dash of the NWSL.
“Our thanks go out to Brian, to Bobby, to Cam, to Calen, and if I miss anybody I apologize—those guys spring to mind right away,” said Kinnear. “But it brings in a new chance for some others and I think Chris is right, we've made some good acquisitions, made history with the first ever interleague loan in Major League Soccer with Tony Cascio who I think will be very good.
“Sometimes change is good, it brings a little bit of freshness. As long as the overall attitude in the locker room remains the same I think it gives a chance to be better.”
Canetti and Kinnear did not rule out adding to the roster before the opening game of the regular season that sees the New England Revolution visit BBVA Compass Stadium on March 8.
"You're always trying to look to get better and certain opportunities may present themselves where it's a chance to get better and if those opportunities arise we'll make the move. It's the job of the staff to constantly be looking for those opportunities, so those opportunities are being pursued. There's nothing imminent in play right now," Canetti said.
Kinnear was clearly delighted to be back in his natural habitat: the training pitch. "I don't really enjoy the offseason too much, I'd rather be out on the field than in the office answering phones," he said.
The Dynamo are scheduled to scrimmage with the club's Academy on Wednesday and Colorado on Sunday before heading to Tucson, Ariz., for a trio of friendlies. Another three scrimmages follow in the middle of February before the team flies to Charleston, S.C., for the Carolina Challenge Cup.
"We have 40 days of preseason, we've scheduled between 10-11 games with a couple of trips involved against some good MLS competition, one, to get these guys ready at the start of the season and two, to see how the new guys are going to fare for us," said Kinnear. "The ultimate goal for us is to win MLS Cup and that's our aim as always as we head into preseason."
Houston crushed D.C. United 4-0 at RFK Stadium last May and thumped Chivas USA 5-1 at home in September, but eight of the Dynamo's 14 regular-season wins last year were by a one-goal margin. On Kinnear's wish-list for the coming campaign is a few more comfortable victories.
"We didn't have too many runaway wins last year," he said. "It builds character, it builds confidence, it shows you that you're scoring goals in different areas, that would be the one thing. At times we had the chance to push teams out of reach and we didn't do that. I'm not saying it's killer instinct, I'm just saying maybe it's overall quality, playing with a lead and adding to it—those things go a long way."
One thing Kinnear hopes remains constant is the team's habit of performing strongly when matches reach their closing stages. "I'm not a huge stat guy," he said, "but our goals for and goals against in the last 15 minutes of games has been outstanding since I can remember, it shows the character of the team, how fit they are, how much they care whether they're losing or winning, I'd like to see that continue, that for me shows a good recipe for success."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.