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Dec 6, 2008

Dynamo still strong contenders for '09

For the Houston Dynamo, looking back on the 2008 MLS season will be like looking into one of those Fun House mirrors from the local carnival. You know, the ones that completely warp your perspective. By most objective measures, the Dynamo had a successful season, claiming the best record in the Western Conference. Yet their stunning playoff elimination at the hands of the New York Red Bulls not only obscured all that was good about their campaign, but also served to question whether Houston is a team in decline.

It's a preposterous assertion on the surface, given that the Dynamo lost but five regular-season games all year. But that's what happens when you are on the receiving end of perhaps the biggest first-round upset in MLS playoff history.

And the series did reveal some chinks in the Dynamo's once-impervious armor, with their vulnerability to speedy flank players like Red Bulls' midfielder Dane Richards the most glaring deficiency. The advancing age of Houston's lineup is also apparent. Seven of the 11 players who started the home leg against New York will begin the 2009 season on the wrong side of 30, putting more pressure on head coach Dominic Kinnear to retool his roster. And with expansion continuing to chip away at the team's depth, it's tempting to conclude that time is fast running out on Houston's dynasty.

The reality, of course, is that the Dynamo are far from finished.

"Houston is still, hands-down, the best team in Major League Soccer," said former U.S. international Eric Wynalda. "This is not to discredit the accomplishment that the Columbus Crew had. They had a great year and terrific blend of players. But based on pure talent, pure ability, soccer knowledge, experience -- yes, Houston is better."

Kinnear was a tad less enthusiastic in his assessment of his team's present situation, but liked his team's prospects nonetheless.

"If this team were to stay together and make a run at it next year, we'd be one of the contenders," said the Houston coach. "There's not a lot to do."

Go down the Dynamo's lineup, and it's clear why Houston is still among the league's elite. Houston has quality at nearly every position, with its midfield especially rich in talent. Not only are Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis still in their prime, but the likes of Stuart Holden and Corey Ashe are young players who have proven themselves ready for bigger roles. Then there is the considerable class offered up by Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Mullan.

That's not to say that Houston doesn't have some holes to fill. The departure of Nate Jaqua to Seattle once again puts the Dynamo in the market for a forward to pair with Brian Ching. With Bobby Boswell expected to head to Europe, the team will also be looking to bolster the center of its defense, and the aforementioned age issue is most apparent at fullback. While both Wade Barrett and Richard Mulrooney are solid performers, Kinnear will need to start planning now for their eventual departures.

So where can the Houston manager expect to find reinforcements? With no picks in the first two rounds of the 2009 SuperDraft, finding replacements from the college ranks seems unlikely, although the Dynamo did find a gem in last year's third round when they selected the versatile Geoff Cameron.

Instead, Kinnear will likely go the trade route, a tactic that has served him well over the years. After the 2004 campaign, the departures of Landon Donovan, Ronnie Ekelund and Jeff Agoos forced Kinnear to rebuild a San Jose Earthquake side that eventually morphed into the current Dynamo squad, with Davis and Clark among his acquisitions. And Kinnear's Midas touch in the trade market hasn't diminished over time; the 2007-08 offseason saw him land Boswell.

With Chicago sitting on a glut of defenders, a move for a player like Dasan Robinson would be right up the Houston manager's alley.

"Kinnear's too smart; he'll find players," said Wynalda. "And his system is one that works, that really defines the positions well so he doesn't have to get creative. Guys can come and go out of certain position and not have a dramatic effect on the team."

Kinnear could also opt to promote from within. While Patrick Ianni has yet to show the kind of consistency needed to be a full-time starter, Cameron's flexibility could see him land in the middle of Houston's back line. The play of Holden could also result in De Rosario's moving up top alongside Ching, thus ensuring that the Dynamo get younger while also staying attack-minded.

"I think with the young guys Kinnear's got, he's got to be pretty happy," said Tim Hanley, who served as an assistant to Kinnear in both San Jose and Houston. "I think it will make for an easier transition than from 2004 to 2005."

Of course, there remains the possibility that the team could use its Designated Player slot to fill its hole at forward, but Kinnear sounds every bit like a man who, despite sitting on a boatload of cash, can't bring himself to spring for the Maserati, preferring instead to buy a fleet of BMWs.

"I think it has to be an absolutely perfect situation," Kinnear said of using his DP slot. "You have to make sure the locker room is totally committed to having him, because if not, things go wrong. If the player comes here with an open mind and wants to be a huge part of the locker room and tries his hardest, then I think it's a great idea.

"But we've done okay without a DP, and you have to understand the risk you're taking. And if we were to get a DP, then we would have to move two guys who are on pretty good money, who are starting for us every day. Is it worth it? I'd rather go with what I know than what I don't know."

One thing Kinnear knows for sure is that he'll have a less congested schedule next year. The Houston manager insists that a calendar that included CONCACAF Champions Cup, U.S. Open Cup, SuperLiga, CONCACAF Champions League and MLS contests wasn't to blame for his team's playoff exit, but the additional games no doubt took a toll.

With SuperLiga no longer on Houston's docket, the Dynamo should have a bit more jump in their legs down the stretch. And if Kinnear can replicate his trades of years past, a trip back to the MLS Cup final -- and a resumption of their dynasty -- will be well within reach.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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