Three months on from the last kick of the previous campaign, the 2015 Dynamo are poised to take to the field after surely the busiest and most dramatic offseason in club history.
The first day of preseason training is always a special moment, but there’s extra spice for Monday’s start given a wide-ranging and ambitious winter reboot that has produced big changes in the squad and staff and inspired plenty of optimism as the big kick-off draws closer.
“On Monday we get the opportunity to work with the players, to influence them, to put forward how we want to play, set the standards. That’s the exciting thing now. [Preseason] sets you up for your whole season,” new head coach Owen Coyle told HoustonDynamo.com.
“We’re in this game because we love it, but equally we’re in because we love winning, and that’s what we want to be doing. But that takes hard work. We’re going to have to make sure everybody’s working very hard in this training camp, this preseason, to make sure we’re ready for the start of the season proper.”
That comes in six weeks with the season-opening game at BBVA Compass Stadium against the Columbus Crew.
A year ago there were only a handful of changes to the roster. But this winter has seen eleven arrivals and the same number of departures, with prolific Mexican striker “Cubo” Torres (who will make his debut in the summer) headlining the new signings.
“He’s a young, exciting player, a goalscorer, somebody that wins games and somebody we feel we can improve. When you get players of that quality coming into your club I think people sit up and take notice,” said Coyle.
Fittingly for a team that calls one of North America’s most diverse cities home, the moves have built a multinational roster. It features players from eight different nations, with six for whom Spanish is their first language. And with the club still looking to improve the squad, the additions might not yet be done.
“When you turn over all that personnel and make structural changes, you bring a whole new philosophy, a whole new environment and a whole new way of doing things. It’s definitely been a lot but it’s been spectacular, I would say,” club president Chris Canetti told HoustonDynamo.com.
“I can feel the excitement internally from our players and coaches, I can feel the excitement from our staff and most importantly I can feel the excitement from our fans. I receive communications good, bad and ugly and I can say with a lot of satisfaction that fan reaction from everything we’ve done this offseason has been very, very positive.”
Coyle’s already on record stating that he wants his team to play a fast, fluent, attacking brand of soccer. He’s got plenty of tactical options to achieve that aim, given the positional flexibility of key attacking pieces such as Giles Barnes, Davis and Boniek García. And if he chooses to deploy two holding midfielders, a tandem of Luis Garrido and Ricardo Clark figures to be an effective shield against whatever the Western Conference has to offer. (To add to the changes, the team’s also switching conferences this year.)
Preseason begins with the promise of a full year out of influential midsummer acquisitions DaMarcus Beasley and Garrido and the hope that the freakish injury problems that bedeviled the team in 2014 won’t be repeated.
Canetti paid tribute to the scouting acumen of new vice-president/general manager Matt Jordan, who has overseen the arrival of former Spanish league defender Raúl Rodríguez, Argentinian winger Leonel Miranda, several promising youngsters via the SuperDraft and the signing of veterans who will add depth, such as goalkeeper Joe Willis and returning midfielder Nathan Sturgis.
For Jordan, depth is key to success. “One of our big goals for this offseason was to improve the quality of the team, to become more dynamic but also balanced as a group. We feel with the moves we’ve made there is strong competition in every position. We believe that competition is how to get the most out of our players individually and as a group. That’s something that for me is very important moving forward,” Jordan told HoustonDynamo.com.
As the Dynamo seek to improve their defensive solidity this year, Rodríguez is likely to play a key role. “We put in a lot of hard work scouting Raúl. It was important to meet him in person and watch him live. He fits what we were looking for to improve our team defensively. It’s not easy to get a player 27 years old to leave Europe for MLS. He’s very motivated about this project and very excited about the direction the club is going, which were key factors in him joining our club,” Jordan said.
As for Miranda, who joins on a season-long loan from Club Atlético Independiente, Jordan said: “He is a young, dynamic player who has the ability to put defenses on their heels. He’s 21 years old and coming from one of the top clubs in Argentina. He provides flexibility to our roster, he can play wide on either side or as a second striker. We feel that he’s a player who will grow within our system.”
Three new Europe-born coaches have been appointed to work under Coyle: assistant Sandy Stewart, goalkeeper coach Phil Hughes and sports performance director/fitness coach Paul Caffrey.
Coyle is not only focused on the first team. He and several staff members met with Dynamo Academy players and their parents earlier in the week. “We want to make sure that the Academy has a route into the first team,” he said. “We want those young kids striving to play in the Houston Dynamo first team so it was important that we had that meeting with everyone seeing and hopefully buying into what we’re doing.”
The Scot arrived with a reputation for energy and enthusiasm after spells in England with Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic. Jordan says those qualities have already been evident. “He’s a coach that has a true respect and appreciation for MLS and the North American player. While in Florida at the combine I experienced this first hand. We interviewed over 20 players and through that process I really enjoyed seeing Owen’s passion transmitted to each player. I’ve been highly impressed with Owen since joining our club,” he said.
“Owen’s been a perfect fit so far. When I hired him I think I said publicly that this hire is more than just winning soccer matches,” Canetti said. “Certainly that’s priority 1A and what we brought him here to do, but in this individual who’s probably going to be the most publicized face of the franchise, we needed to have a very dynamic leader and personality who could help us achieve what we’re trying to achieve at the club. As every day goes on I feel more and more confident that we made a great choice in that area.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.