Defending champions have rarely had it easy in Major League Soccer. Twelve years in, only the D.C. United side of 1997 has successfully defended its title, and so far this season, reigning MLS Cup holder Houston is finding out just how tough it is to repeat. In fact, with a record of 3-5-1, missing the playoffs entirely seems a more likely prospect for the Dynamo than repeating as champions. Yet the season is still relatively young, and fresh off a confidence-building 2-1 defeat of Dallas, Houston will try to continue its recovery against the Colorado Rapids on MLS Primetime Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
This is not the first time Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has tried to coax a championship team to a repeat, only to see them struggle. In his first year in charge of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2004, his team failed to achieve any kind of consistency, and didn't clinch a playoff berth until the final day of the regular season.
"In 2004, sometimes we were by far the best team in the league and sometimes we weren't," Kinnear said. "This year, I think we've been struggling with results only. Maybe I'm just overly optimistic, but the game against New York was the only one where we didn't play well, while the other ones it looked like we would get something out of it."
Five story lines to follow
1. Gold Cup absences
International commitments will impact both teams on Thursday, but it is the Dynamo who will be harder hit. Midfielders Ricardo Clark and Dwayne De Rosario and forward Brian Ching will all be missing. Of the three, the absence of Ching might be most keenly felt. No player on the Houston roster can hold the ball up like the Hawaiian, and with Paul Dalglish still nursing a tender right ankle, Kinnear may turn to Chris Wondolowski to play up top.
Colorado will be without Panamanian forward Roberto Brown, but the Rapids would appear to have a ready-made replacement in Conor Casey, who used his size to good effect last week against Toronto, assisting on Herculez Gomez's first-half goal.
2. Houston's struggles in front of the goal
While the Dynamo has defended with their usual zeal, the root of their problems has been an attack that has tallied just seven goals in nine games, and has already been shut out five times. Given the frequency with which Houston has hit the post or had shots cleared off the line, part of it can be chalked up to bad luck. Yet Kinnear admits that despite solid approach work, the champs have not been near sharp enough in front of the goal.
"It's just execution," Kinnear said. "For me it's been that final pass, that final play that just takes away chances."
3. The Colorado conundrum
Colorado has claimed some impressive wins this year, including a 1-0 triumph at New York that marked the Red Bulls' first league defeat of the season. But one gets the sense that the Rapids should have done better than their 4-3-3 record, especially when one considers they have played six of their 10 games at home. An injury bug has led to some inconsistency, but they have also been let down by the erratic play of midfielders Jovan Kirovski and Terry Cooke, who were both subbed out at halftime of last week's 2-1 loss to Toronto.
4. Houston's hoodoo over the Rapids
From the moment the Dynamo set up shop in Houston, they have practically owned Colorado, going 4-1-1 against the Rapids, including a 3-1 defeat in last year's conference finals. Houston also claimed a 3-1 victory in Colorado on May 5, lending credence to the theory that the Dynamo have the Rapids' number.
"We don't match up well against Houston," Colorado coach Fernando Clavijo admitted. "But we're looking at changes, things we can do different."
Fortunately for Clavijo, Houston's three missing internationals may be the change he's looking for. All three players have been especially effective against the Rapids, and their absence should increase the visitors' chances.
5. Colorado's revamped defense
Clavijo spent much of the offseason retooling his back line, using trades to acquire Brandon Prideaux, Greg Vanney and Ugo Ihemelu. And while the early returns were positive, injuries to all three players have forced Clavijo to juggle his lineup. Ihemelu has since recovered, and his speed on the back line is vital, since it allows the team to defend higher up the field. The expected return of Prideaux on Thursday should also allow the Rapids to shore up the flanks, and given the fact that Houston thrives on solid wing play, that will be one area to watch on Thursday.
Five players to watch
1. Brad Davis, M, Houston
Like De Rosario, Davis has been plagued by inconsistency this season. But in the absence of his Canadian teammate, he'll need to shoulder more of the creative burden. There is a tendency to think that Davis will directly assume De Rosario's spot in the middle, but there are some compelling reasons to leave the American on the left flank. A wide role would allow Davis to whip in his trademark crosses, and the physical nature of Colorado midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Pablo Mastroeni appears to be a poor matchup for Davis. That means Kinnear may opt for someone like Kelly Gray in the middle.
2. Herculez Gomez, F, Colorado
Stung by his offseason trade from Los Angeles, Gomez has proven his worth, scoring four times this season, whether lined up out wide or up top. The Colorado forward also looks to have established a decent understanding with Casey, despite limited playing time with his latest forward partner. Yet Clavijo is expecting even more from his young attacker.
"I don't think we've seen the best out of [Gomez] yet," Clavijo said. "He needs to manage the game better, when to change the pace, when to change the rhythm, but he's coming along extremely well."
3. Richard Mulrooney, M, Houston
Acquired in a midseason trade with expansion club Toronto, Mulrooney will be counted on to provide some of the steel in midfield that Clark normally offers. Having spent most of his time with the Dynamo at right back, Mulrooney had his first start in midfield against Dallas, and the results were mixed. While providing good energy, his wayward back pass sprung Dallas' Arturo Alvarez on a late breakaway, resulting in goalkeeper Pat Onstad's ejection. Kinnear hopes a few more days of training will iron out the rough spots in Mulrooney's game.
4. Bouna Coundoul, GK, Colorado
So far this season, Coundoul has wowed fans with his athleticism and shot-stopping ability. He's also tested the patience of his coach with some poor decisions, like last week's ill-advised attempt to confront Toronto's Jeff Cunningham outside the box with the ball at the forward's feet. Fortunately for Coundoul, Cunningham was unable to convert the gift, but expect Houston to test the Colorado keeper's decision making at every opportunity.
5. Corey Ashe, M, Houston
While it's not clear if Ashe will start, the North Carolina product has provided Houston with a valuable spark off the bench the last two weeks, and it was his darting run from midfield that eventually led to Joseph Ngwenya's game-winning goal against Dallas. Ashe's best attribute is his pace, and if the Dynamo find themselves in need of a goal late in the match, having a player like Ashe running at a tired defense could be a difference maker.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.