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Holden the key with De Rosario's departure

Editor's note: This is the first of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. The second will be New England on Tuesday.

2008 record and finish: 13-5-12 (First in Western Conference)

Key additions: D Julius James, M Danny Cruz, G Tally Hall

Key losses: M Dwayne De Rosario, D Patrick Ianni, F Nate Jaqua

Three questions facing this team:

1. Can the Dynamo survive the departure of Dwayne De Rosario?

The Canadian international was the attacking engine that made the Dynamo go during their championship seasons of 2006 and 2007. But with the team hamstrung by salary cap concerns, and with De Rosario itching to play for his hometown team, a deal to Toronto was consummated.

Into the breach steps Stuart Holden, who has impressed during stints with the U.S. Olympic team, as well as occasional starts when De Rosario was on international duty. Holden is rated as one of the best young attacking talents in MLS, with his passing and vision especially impressive.

That said, the Dynamo have long been a team that relied on effective flank play to drive their offense, meaning players like Brad Davis and Brian Mullan will need to step up their games a notch or two in order to take some of the burden off Holden.

2. Can the team banish the memory of last year's playoff flameout?

New York's ambush of Houston in the first round of last year's playoffs ranks as the biggest playoff upset in league history. So will that experience haunt the Dynamo, or drive them back to the top of the MLS heap? Head coach Dominic Kinnear insists his team's collective psyche is strong enough to put that disappointment behind them, but if the Dynamo experiences another slow start, like they did in 2007 and 2008, you can bet that Houston will be reminded of that failure often.

John Harkes' Take:
"With Dominic Kinnear, [it's a] very well-coached team. I think losing De Rosario hurts them. The only thing that is a big bonus is that they can look forward to Stuart Holden. He's been waiting in the wings to step in and play this role, this free-playing attacking midfield role. I think he'll do well there. He's a very talented kid. I think they did a good job of holding onto Bobby Boswell in the offseason at center back. I think the biggest question for them is if they can get the attacking form back and then how long Pat Onstad can last in the goal. He's one of the oldest players now in MLS, but he does perform at high levels. He's just got to stay fit and healthy."

That said, history has shown that Houston is perhaps the most resilient team in the league. A similar upset to Los Angeles in 2005, when the franchise was still in San Jose, proved to have a galvanizing effect, and not even the team's relocation to Houston stopped them from claiming the first of the Dynamo's two league championships in 2006.

3. Who will partner with Brian Ching?

The departure of De Rosario places an even greater premium on finding a suitable partner for Ching. At present, the role of being the U.S. international's sidekick appears set to fall to Kei Kamara. But given the team's ultimately failed bid to land Mexican forward Luis Angel Landin, it's clear that Kinnear is keen to acquire other options. Former MLS Cup hero Joseph Ngwenya remains a possibility, but even if the Zimbabwean returns for a second stint in Houston, it's likely Kinnear won't stop there, especially since Ching's international commitments will cause him to miss a significant chunk of the season.

Kinnear thought he had scored a coup with the acquisition of 18-year-old Felix Garcia, a star with the U.S. U-20 national team in January. However, after his apparent signing, the Laredo, Tex., native did an about face and declared his intention to finish high school, casting some doubt as to whether he'll ever suit up for the Dynamo.

If the recent past is any guide, it's likely Kinnear will have to wait until midseason to fill this void. But the Houston manager has shown an uncanny knack for pulling off such deals, and they have often proven critical to the team's success.

Biggest X-factor: Stuart Holden

In talking to Kinnear, it's clear that there are other options in the center of midfield besides Holden. Brad Davis has played there in the past, and could often be seen switching positions with De Rosario on the fly. Richard Mulrooney, despite his advancing age, would bring plenty of veteran guile to the position. That said, if Holden does succeed in filling the attacking vacuum left by De Rosario's departure, it makes Kinnear's life a lot easier, in that he won't have to cannibalize other parts of his lineup.

Breakout player to watch: Kei Kamara

With Houston's starting XI among the more stable units in the league, the Dynamo aren't usually the source of breakout players. But with little depth up top, Kamara should get plenty of chances to make an impact. Of course, the Sierra Leone native has had similar opportunities before, most notably last year with San Jose, and failed to take them, leading me to believe that Kamara is looking at his last chance to be a consistent starter.

Without question, Kamara has probably the best supporting cast of his career, and he provides a pacy alternative to the physical Ching. With the Hawaiian willing to take more than his share of abuse, that should allow Kamara to find some freedom in the attacking third. Whether Kamara has the technical ability to exploit it remains a big question, although Kinnear insists that the forward has cleaned up his touch a bit, and has improved his hold-up play.

Corey Ashe is another player who could enjoy a breakout season in 2009. Ashe performed well when presented with occasional starts by Kinnear, and an injury or two, as well as some international absences, could provide the North Carolina product with the kind of minutes he needs to show off his speed.

Outlook:

In the aftermath of the Dynamo's playoff loss to New York, much focus was placed on the team's weaknesses, namely that they were too old and too slow. But the fact remains that Houston is still one of the top teams in the league. The re-signing of defender Bobby Boswell should do plenty to solidify the team's defense, although a bounce-back year from Eddie Robinson, who endured a thoroughly inconsistent 2008 season, will be needed as well. The ageless Pat Onstad continues to be a stalwart in goal.

MLS Primetime
March 19
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)

The midfield also looks solid, with Ricardo Clark adding plenty of bite while players like Geoff Cameron and the aforementioned Ashe will provide quality depth. Kinnear has also been quietly rebuilding his team in an effort to address his side's deficiencies. The acquisition of Julius James adds some more athleticism to Houston's back line, while the arrival of Generation adidas prospect Danny Cruz gives the Dynamo an intriguing midfield prospect for the future.

Like most MLS sides, the Dynamo have their weaknesses. The team has little depth up top once you get past Ching, and Houston also looks vulnerable at outside back, where players like Wade Barrett, Craig Waibel, and Mulrooney appear to leave the team susceptible to the same kind of pacy flank play that led to its playoff demise.

Yet this same trio of players also provides the kind of consistency and experience that Kinnear prizes. And given the voracious appetite for winning that still exists in the Houston locker room, as well as a schedule lighter in international commitments, one can expect the Dynamo to be among the league's elite at season's end.

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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