Here’s the book on Houston Dynamo: Big centerbacks and forwards, two creative midfielders, smart coach, 4-4-2, stable and consistent. Mediocre in the regular season, almost unbeatable in the playoffs.
If it weren’t for that last bit, it might be easy to write the Dynamo off as one of the league’s dullest teams.
But here’s a better way to look at this club: Houston’s philosophy might just be the best template in Major League Soccer for building a consistently successful franchise in North America. And the Dynamo’s reputation for playing Route One ball? Misleading.
Charleston fans should have a pretty good idea of what to expect heading into Saturday’s final match of the 2014 Carolina Challenge Cup. The Battery played three matches against teams in Dynamo creamsicle kits last season, going 3-0-0 against them.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for…
HOUSTON DYNAMO PREVIEW
(CCC: 0-1-1, 1 goal for, 3 goals against)
The genius of the Houston system in recent years has been its core stability. Coach Dom Kinnear uses a playing style that suits North American talent, and he tends a veteran roster that transmits his philosophy to the new blood that circulates into the club each offseason.
Unlike D.C. United and Seattle Sounders, Houston’s offseason plans never include the word “overhaul.”
Charleston beat Houston 3-2 on the final night of the 2013 CCC in a game remembered primarily as rookie goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper‘s spectacular debut. What gets forgotten in the memory was the late Zach Prince corner kick that found the head of rookie forward Austin Savage and gave the Battery its first win of the season over MLS talent.
Goalkeeper Tally Hall is just now approaching his prime goalkeeping years at 28, but he’s already considered one of the league’s best at the position. He’s on Jurgen Klinsmann‘s radar for the U.S. National Team, too. But will he get the tune-up start? Backup Tyler Deric (who suffered through a terrible game at Blackbaud Stadium last summer) got the call in the 0-2 loss to D.C. United, and third-string prospect Erich Marschieder looks like a future MLS starter. Stay tuned.
Veteran Dynamo centerback Bobby Boswell moved on to D.C.. But his partner in central defense, Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor, returns to anchor the back line. Fullbacks Kofi Sarkodie and Corey Ashe are quality MLS veterans who can get upfield.
WHAT TO WATCH: The storyline in Charleston has been the competition for Houston’s second centerback position. Eric Brunner and David Horst were both starters in Portland until injuries sidelined them, with Brunner joining the Dynamo in 2013 and Horst arriving this offseason. They’ve alternated starts and halves during the CCC.
Both are 6-4, but when you imagine the stereotypical Dynamo centerback, Horst is the artist’s rendering you send over to central casting. He’s a burly 210, with a musclar chin straight out of a comic book. And while his bold style of play sometimes gets him in trouble, he’s taking fewer wild risks at this stage of his career than he did as a young player in Dallas.
Here are two names that ought to drive stakes through the heart of the stereotype that says Houston’s attack is based on Route One football: Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia, the Honduran star who arrived as a Designated Player in 2012.
At 32, Davis is a leader, an occasional member of the USMNT XI, and one of the better offensive midfielders in MLS. He’s not that dazzling No. 10 guy, but he’s a killer on set pieces and a great crosser. Boniek Garcia starts on the outside, and is more of the dynamic creator. Houston’s attack runs through these two.
WHAT TO WATCH: Tony Cascio is a third-year winger who seems to have been rejuvenated by his intraleague loan (with option to buy) from Colorado. He assisted on Davis’ goal on Wednesday, and will push the rehabilitating Warren Creavalle for a starting spot in this unit. As a rookie in 2012, Cascio flashed All-Star potential before falling out of favor last season.
But here’s the tricky part. Houston’s other “designated player” is Alex Lopez, another Honduran midfielder. He’s officially a “young DP,” a separate MLS category we don’t want to delve into here, but since arriving in August, he hasn’t exactly set the league on fire. Will Kinnear take a longer look at his 21-year-old investment on Saturday?
Will Bruin divides opinions in American soccer. On the one hand, he’s one of the USMNT’s better big-bodied prospects at forward. On the other, he’s still a developing player at 24, and the technical side of his game draws critics. He followed up a 12-goal 2012 with an eight-goal 2013, but the story of Bruin’s last season was missed chances. As in, he missed a bunch of his chances.
His strike partner, Giles Barnes, is a 25-year-old Englishman who made it to the Premier League with Derby County in 2008. After failing to stick with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, he dropped back to the League Championship, and was a late signing with Houston in August 2012. His true unveiling with the Dynamo came in 2013, registering 9 goals and 4 assists in 32 starts and 33 regular-season appearances.
WHAT TO WATCH: Once you drop below these two, the rest of the roster consists of veteran Omar Cummings and some youngsters. So while Brian Salazar has tremendous potential, and Jason Johnson got some first team minutes last year, the big question here is probably still the developing partnership between Bruin and Barnes, two forwards who — on paper, at least — look like well-matched pieces in the Dynamo system.
Houston’s forwards have yet to generate a goal or an assist in the 2014 CCC.
One guy Battery fans probably would like to forget is Brian Ownby. He’s either a forward or a midfielder depending on your classification, but Charleston faced him four times (once with Houston, once on loan with Richmond, and twice with Houston’s reserves) in 2013. He’s been getting minutes during this CCC, too.
CHARLESTON BATTERY PREVIEW
(CCC: 0-1-1, 2 goals for, 3 goals against)
Two Challenge Cup matches, two last-minute results for the Battery.
In the opener, Charleston played the Seattle Sounders’ best lineup to a draw before surrendering a penalty kick in the 89th minute to lose 1-2. At midweek, a makeshift DC lineup held Charleston’s veterans off the board in the first half, but the Battery came back in the 90th minute to steal a draw against United’s best XI.
All in all, Battery fans have to feel good about their team’s performance thus far.
Goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper’s thumb sprain will keep the Cuban from trying his luck against Houston for a fourth time, but he’s still expected back for the season opener. Coach Mike Anhaeuser will have a choice between fellow Cuban keeper Andy Ramos, who started Saturday, and American Eric Shannon. Both have played well in Anhaeuser’s CCC rotating halves-and-starts scheme, with Ramos getting the nod in the first half against Seattle, and Shannon opening against D.C. United.
Ramos has surrendered two goals (from the run of play to Osvaldo Alonso and off a free kick against D.C.), while Shannon couldn’t stop Seattle’s game-winning penalty. But very little separates these two in terms of performance. There’s still three weeks of preseason ahead, but a standout performance by either Ramos or Shannon could go a long way to determining which man takes the inside track for the Battery’s backup job.
Half of last season’s back line left in the offseason, but with Shawn Ferguson doing a pretty good Cody Ellison impersonation and veteran Taylor Mueller continuing to progress, the unit has been tight. Mueller was one of Wednesday’s unsung heroes, subbing on at half and playing a major role in the sequence that led to rookie Drew Ruggles‘ equalizer off a last-minute corner.
WHAT TO WATCH: Even without the late heroics from Wednesday, Ruggles would have been worth keeping an eye on. He’s a versatile player who can play inside or wide left, and with 36-year-old left back John Wilson unlikely to log as many minutes in 2014, anyone who figures at that spot is significant.
But how can you not watch Colin Falvey in this spot? The Battery captain and USL PRO Defender of the Year is wicked good against MLS sides, and just keeps turning in portfolio performances. How this man doesn’t have an MLS contract is beyond me, but that big-league myopia continues to serve Battery fans.
Jackson Farmer, an 18-year-old centerback on loan from Vancouver, could be available. And the Emmanuel Adjetey watch continues at Blackbaud.
Mike Azira boosted this unit on Saturday, but it did just fine without him on Wednesday. Amadou Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik do just fine as a central pair, with Quinton Griffith and veteran Zach Prince typically deployed out wide. Attacking mid Maikel Chang got a midweek start out right while Anhaeuser experimented with Griffith at right back against D.C.
In another Wednesday experiment, forward Austin Savage got the start and spent a lot of time in a deeper central position that at times looked like a part of the Battery midfield.
WHAT TO WATCH: First off, who plays? If there’s a deep position on the current roster, it’s midfield. Beyond the names I’ve already mentioned, rookies Dante Marini, Justin Portillo and Miguel Teos have all made significant plays in preseason. Plus the team added Whitecaps midfielder Marlon Ramirez at midweek.
It looks like a numbers game in midfield for Anhaeuser, so who gets minutes could be telling.
While the midfield is packed, Anhaeuser’s choices at forward are limited. Savage and Dane Kelly had their best outings of preseason against United, and everyone got their first extended look at Heviel Cordoves 2.0. But none of these players have yet to contribute an assist or a goal, and Cordoves spent much of his debut being run out of the action on the edges of the field.
WHAT TO WATCH: Kelly has started both CCC matches and turned in a good shift Wednesday with several effective runs and hold-up plays. Afterwards he wasn’t feeling well, but gutted it out. How many minutes will Anhaeuser give him Saturday night?
And with all the interest in whether Cordoves’ indoor success with Wichita can translate into progress in Charleston, you have to expect that Anhaeuser will be looking for opportunities to evaluate him in the remaining preseason.
Anhaeuser says he’s interested in trying a two-striker attack this season. Will he trot out two forwards against Houston like he did in the second half against United?
D.C. UNITED v. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s first match, one thing is clear: The winner of this year’s Challenge Cup will come of that contest. Both teams enter the fray with four points on two matches, but United holds the advantage on goal differential thanks to its 2-0 takedown of Houston.
One storyline the 5 p.m. game won’t include is a late arrival by USMNT captain Clint Dempsey. He’s still in England with Fulham, and thanks to national team duty, he won’t get back to Seattle until late next week. Coach Sigi Schmid told reporters yesterday that Dempsey’s delays mean he’ll be in a reserve role for the season opener on March 8.
Former Battery players Andrew Dykstra of United and Lamar Neagle, Alex Caskey and Osvaldo Alonso of Seattle all started on Wednesday. It’s not clear who will get minutes in Saturday’s finale, but it’s worth noting that United’s Joe Willis, the team’s 2013 backup and sometimes starter in goal, was loaned to Richmond on Thursday. Dkystra drew that duty last year, so it looks like he’s in line to serve as Bill Hamid‘s backup for 2014.
WHAT TO WATCH: It’s not like we need to spell this out. Charleston’s Mike Azira is one of the last players in the hunt for a roster slot in Seattle, and he’s coming off an excellent performance for the Battery on Saturday and a solid turn in the second half for Seattle on Wednesday.
This is Seattle’s final preseason match, so if Azira has any more convincing to do, this is the time for him to do it.
TOP IMAGE: New Houston acquisition Tony Cascio looks upfield in Saturday’s 0-2 loss to D.C. United. A quality performance against Charleston could help him nail down a starting position for Dom Kinnear’s Dynamo. Dan Conover photos.