The Owen Coyle era reaches an early milestone in the Arizona desert on Wednesday as the Dynamo head coach takes charge of his first match.
Ten days after Coyle’s first training session, the Scot will marshal his players in game action as the Dynamo face the San Jose Earthquakes in the first of three exhibitions in Tucson (12 p.m. CT).
With so many new faces on the roster and the coaching staff, the Houston players know that preseason games are a vital chance to impress as Coyle conceives his starting XI for the first MLS match of the season, at home to Columbus Crew SC on March 7 (TICKETS). Coyle has told the players he will pick the lineups based on form, not reputation, so there will be plenty of competition for starting roles.
“He’s made it clear to everyone that everyone’s position’s up for grabs. The guys that have talent and experience need to show it, the guys that are fighting for a spot need to go and do that. It makes sure everyone’s sharp day-in, day-out, and I think the depth has increased, so guys know that every day they have to come and perform,” defender Kofi Sarkodie told HoustonDynamo.com.
Coyle has already been impressed with what he’s seen. “One or two of the young players have excelled,” he said. Now he is relishing the chance to see how his charges perform in a match context. There are eight preseason games scheduled: San Jose, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps in Tucson; scrimmages versus the Dynamo Academy Under-18s and the Austin Aztex at Houston Sports Park; then games against Charleston Battery, New York City FC and Orlando City SC in the Carolina Challenge Cup at the end of the month.
“This is such a special time. It gives every player an opportunity to say, ‘you know what, coach, I deserve to be in that team, I’m going to show you within those games.' Going to Arizona, coming back then going to Charleston, there’s some terrific games against some quality teams, so they’ll all have an opportunity,” Coyle told reporters.
“The training, the application has been terrific from the players but what we want to do is start to get into the games so we can formulate and implement the ideas from the training ground,” he said.
“You can do all the training in the world you want but nothing beats playing the games. That’s where you get your match fitness, it’s a different type of energy, a different type of running you’re doing… It’s also a great trip because it gets them together. I very much like that sense of camaraderie, that sense of team spirit and that togetherness and that’s what the trip will bring.”
Coyle plans to use two different lineups in each half of the game against the Earthquakes. Coincidentally, his opening match pits him against his predecessor, former Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who is now in charge at San Jose.
“We’ve seen Dom at the Combine and then the draft, obviously [assistant coach Steve Ralston] has been here as well, so it’ll be great to catch up with them. They’re great guys and very good at what they do. It’s a preseason game; as much as everybody likes to win every game, the results are not of paramount importance. The important thing is that we get an understanding of what we want to do within the course of the season. But of course, it’s nice when we can win within doing that,” said Coyle.
Tucson’s weather forecast calls for warm and sunny skies this week and Sarkodie is eager to take the field at the Kino Sports Complex, which offers excellent facilities and a scenic mountainous backdrop. Games at the home of the PDL side FC Tucson have become an annual fixture on the MLS preseason calendar and Sporting Kansas City are also in town.
The schedule will allow the Dynamo to get a first look this year at three opponents they’ll face frequently in the Western Conference. During the regular season, Houston will play San Jose and Portland three times and Vancouver twice.
“To get in and get match fitness up and touches, sharpness, that’s what you have to get. We’re excited to get to Tucson and we have three good matches there, we’ll probably have some intra-squads as well, then we’ll get back here to work and shape up for South Carolina,” Sarkodie said.
“The first week’s been great. I think one of the big differences is we’re implementing a lot of the sport science so everything we’re doing is calculated. Owen’s been awesome, been positive with the guys, encouraging us and we’re going to keep pushing on and he wants to make sure we get match fit and put in good performances in Tucson.”
Sarkodie said the old and new players were already bonding before setting off on the trip. The 23-year-old, who started 32 MLS games last year, is embarking on his fifth season with the club.
“It’s like a whole new team, really, from when I first got here to now, there are only three or four guys that are still here. We still have a lot of guys in our core group still around from last year, but if you look around, Leonel Miranda, Raúl Rodríguez, these guys, they’ve come in and they fit perfectly.
“There hasn’t been the need for a big adjustment. Raul and Miranda are talking, already laughing, clowning around in the locker room. It’s good. Sometimes you need fresh air, new energy, new talent and I think we have that. Now I think it’s about putting it together and getting going for the season,” he said.
“We’ve got a good group, a good locker room. I think that’s huge, that’s where it starts—when we all have each other’s back, then it makes it easier on the pitch to go out and do the work we need to do.”
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.