Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It might take a moment to remember, but Houston used to be the most dominant team in MLS. They won back-to-back MLS cups in 2006 and 2007 with Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Ching; add to that three deep playoff runs in 2011, ‘12, and ‘13. De-Ro moved on after 2007, and Ching retired in 2013. And then the wheels came off. Houston haven’t made the playoffs since.
In 2016, Houston had 10 losses by 1 goal; 5 of those goals were scored in the final 20 minutes. In 2 matches, against New York on March 19 and against the Portland Timbers on June 26, the Dynamo held the lead with fewer than 12 minutes to go, and ended up losing.
After only winning 3 matches in the team’s first 12 of the season, and with the team mired in last place, the Dynamo canned manager Owen Coyle. Wade Barrett only improved marginally on that performance, with a 4-11-7 record (WTL) the rest of the way. The club did not offer him a job to manage in 2017, but will instead turn to former Chivas USA manager Wilmer Cabrera.
Normally I don’t mention managers much in these previews, but I’m making an exception because the Houston situation will require a grand effort from a talented manager, and because there have been a lot of changes for 2017. Cabrera’s ability to get the roster to jell is going to be a critical element if this team is to make the playoffs from the first time in years.
2016 Record: 7-13-14 (WTL), 34 points, 10th in the Western Conference
2016 Goals For: 39, 19th in MLS
2016 Goals Against: 45, 9th in MLS
In 2016, Houston had 10 losses by 1 goal.
Alberth Elis, Adolfo Machado, Leonardo, Romell Quioto, Juan David Cabezas, AJ DeLaGarza, Vicente Sanchez
Cristian Maidana, Raul Rodriguez, Collen Warner, Shannon Williams, Will Bruin, David Horst
What they have going for them:
MLS experts, the Dynamo fanbase, and even the casual soccer observer could tell you that Houston needed to make some drastic changes for 2017. They were second-to-worst in all of MLS, with only hapless Chicago below them on points. They were also second-to-worst in goals scored, better than only San Jose, with 39 goals.
Apparently, the Houston front office strongly agreed.
The team let go of three of its five regular backliners in Horst, Rodriguez, and Williams; its starting left wing, Maidana; its defense midfielder, Collen Warner, and backup striker, Bruin. They swapped managers, as mentioned. And they look like they’ve swapped formations, from last years 4-1-4-1 to a more aggressive 4-3-3*. If that ends up true, it will likely push Eric Alexander, Alex, or Ricardo Clark to the bench. All that means that the 2017 edition of the Dynamo may lineup with only three or four of the regulars from the 2016 Dynamo; probably Clark, Alex, striker Mauro Manotas, and left back DaMarcus Beasley.
The offense will be spearheaded by Alberth Elis at right wing and (probably) Romell Quioto at left wing; Quioto will have to beat Andrew Wenger for the right wing spot, and Wenger had some real flashes over the past two seasons where he looked like a solid MLS contributor. Both Elis and Quioto are Honduran, both are young (Quioto is 25, Elis is 21), and both come from Honduran powerhouse Olimpia. Elis should be worth tuning in to watch.
In between the wings will probably be striker Mauro Manotas, who scored 6 goals with only 10 starts in 2016. If it isn’t him, it will be striker Erick Torres. Torres hasn’t scored for Houston since he joined 18 months ago, but he plugged 15 goals back in 2014 for Chivas RIP. And even though it feels like he’s been around a while, he’s only 24 years old. A ‘Cubo’ resurrection would reverse the previous years struggles for Houston, especially considering their anemic goal scoring in 2016.
Adolfo Machado is one of (at least) five former Saprissa members to come to MLS this season, and will likely anchor the back line. He’s an unknown, but he’ll join Beasley, former Galaxy CB Leonardo, and the under-appreciated AJ DeLaGarza on a backline that I think will do just fine.
Well, everyone’s new. So maybe they don’t make the adjustment to MLS quickly. Or maybe they don’t jell. Or maybe the level at the Honduran and Costa Rican league is way overblown and these guys aren’t as good as hoped.
In addition, you wonder if slightly aged players like Ricardo Clark and DeMarcus Beasley can still get the job done. And, although he’s scored a couple times already in pre-season, you wonder if Cubo Torres is going to put it all back together finally.
Then, there’s goalkeeper. Tyler Deric played his way out of the starting lineup last season after a bunch of below-average performances. Joe Willis took over for the rest of the season. Hard to say which will start, but neither instills confidence, at least for me.
For me the biggest concern is at defensive midfield. Juan David Cabezas was brought in to do the job, but if he isn’t up for it, the other options - a declining Ricardo Clark and regular bench-jockey Eric Alexander, don’t inspire confidence for me.
This team has a whiff of the 2016 Colorado Rapids, in that there’s a lot of unknowns here, and the popular thing to do would be to say ‘not good enough.’ But I think Houston will be surprisingly competitive in 2017, scoring a bunch while also conceding a bunch. They’ll improve and stay in the hunt, finishing somewhere between 6th and 8th. Health and depth will be the deciding factors in whether they can snag that final playoff spot.
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* They might go 4-4-2 with Elis and Quioto. It may be that they’re using the 4-3-3 to give their many options at forward a chance, and Cubo is odd man out. I don’t think so, but we’ll soon see.