MLS 2011 team preview: Houston
2010 record and finish: 9-15-6 (seventh in Western Conference)
Three questions facing this team:
1. Can the Dynamo defense rebound?
There were many reasons for Houston's rapid descent from MLS Cup contender to playoff spectator this past season, but chief among them was a defense that didn't come close to replicating its championship forebears. Granted, the departure of holding midfielder Ricardo Clark as well as the serious knee injury sustained by Geoff Cameron were huge factors in the Dynamo's conceding nearly twice as many goals, from 29 in 2009 to 49 in 2010. But the play of the back line did little to pick up the slack, with no defender really distinguishing himself.
To compensate, manager Dominic Kinnear has brought in reinforcements from all corners of the globe. Hunter Freeman has returned from a two-year stint in Norway with IK Start, Kofi Sarkodie was obtained via the draft, while Jermaine Taylor has arrived from Jamaican side St. George's SC. Cameron's return to health and the continued progress of Lovel Palmer should also go a long way toward providing the kind of athletic cover needed to shield a defense.
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2. Is there enough attacking depth in the midfield?
After losing Stuart Holden during the 2008-09 offseason, too much of the creative burden fell on Brad Davis, especially after Cameron's injury. Wide midfielders Corey Ashe and Danny Cruz had their chances to become bigger parts of the offense, but failed to become regular attacking threats, even after the midseason departure of Brian Mullan.
As with the back line, Kinnear has sought to create more depth this season. Flank midfielder Colin Clark arrived late last season, albeit while in the middle of recovering from his second torn ACL in as many years. Whether this acquisition -- along with the continued seasoning of Ashe and Cruz -- is sufficient is a question only time can answer.
3. Is Tally Hall ready to take over for Pat Onstad?
When Onstad sustained an abdominal injury in midseason, Hall was given his chance to shine but delivered mixed results. While he possesses great size and reflexes, he gave up enough soft goals -- including a howler against Columbus -- to leave open the question of whether he is the heir apparent to Onstad, whose glittering résumé included two goalkeeper of the year awards and three MLS Cups.
Given the number of new faces throughout the Houston lineup, it will be imperative that Hall delivers.
Biggest X factor: Geoff Cameron
Cameron struggled with his consistency even before getting injured, as he looked to make the transition from Best XI defender to central midfielder. Although his athleticism can't be questioned, there were times when his passing and positioning were not up to the standard needed.
With the injury now behind him, Cameron will need to be the kind of box-to-box threat that will provide Davis the space needed for his passing ability to shine. A failure to fulfill that role will allow teams to shut Davis down, a troubling sign for a side that struggled to create goals from the run of play this past season.
Breakout player to watch: Jermaine Taylor
After impressing with Jamaica at last year's Caribbean Cup, Taylor was brought in by Kinnear to bolster the back line and hasn't disappointed during the preseason. Although his height of 5-foot-10 isn't overly impressive, Taylor possesses good strength and speed, as well as being tidy enough on the ball to start the attack. He's also a threat from dead ball situations, adding to Houston's already imposing array of set piece targets.
Outlook: After years of cheating the hangman, the combination of player departures, injuries, and some questionable personnel decisions finally caught up with the Dynamo. Last season, they failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since moving to Houston. And while the roster is unquestionably deeper and stronger than it was a year ago, it's unclear whether that will be enough to get them back to the postseason.
Of course, the league's decision to expand the pool of playoff teams from eight to ten improves the Dynamo's chances before a ball is even kicked. A move to the Eastern Conference, where it seems like every team aside from New York is in rebuilding mode, should allow them to stay in the hunt as well.
Kinnear has proved over the years that he knows how to squeeze the most out of his team. To get back to the playoffs, he'll need his new defensive arrivals to step up and for the likes of Davis and Cameron to have standout seasons.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.