MLS has long been a league that punishes success. Expansion constantly chips away at a team's depth, while the added burden of international competition stretches a club's roster to the breaking point. Then there is the miniscule salary cap of around $2.3 million, which not only makes it difficult for teams to reward their best players, but practically encourages those performers to head overseas in search of a big payday.
Whispers about Houston's imminent demise from championship contender to league also-ran have been circulating for a few seasons now. When the club bumped up against the salary cap heading into 2009, it opted to deal attacking hub Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto. This was on top of losing workhorse forward Nate Jaqua to Seattle in the expansion draft.
The thinking in some quarters was that Houston wouldn't be able to cope, yet the Dynamo still managed to tie Los Angeles for the top spot in the Western Conference. In fact, were it not for a phantom foul that wiped out a goal in the conference final against the Galaxy, the Dynamo might very well have been the ones contesting the MLS Cup final against Real Salt Lake.
But the losses of Clark and Holden cut deep into the muscle of what has made Houston one of the league's premier sides. Clark's immense range and tackling eased the burden on the Dynamo's already stingy back line. And while Holden didn't make fans automatically forget about De Rosario, his output of six goals and four assists came close to matching the Canadian's production during his last two years in Houston.
"It's definitely a big void, even more so than if we had lost guys in other positions," said Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad. "Everyone will definitely have to improve a little bit to make up for those losses."
Adding to the sense of loss is that Clark, 26, and Holden, 24, were in their prime and this was thought to be a necessary bulwark against the team's advancing age. Houston's average age of 27.1 (not including recent draftees) is among the highest in the league and the mobility of both players was among the team's strengths. This is especially true with key contributors like Brian Mullan and Brian Ching now on the proverbial wrong side of 30.
But while the departures no doubt weaken the Dynamo, they need not be a death blow. In Geoff Cameron and Brad Davis, Houston has two ready-made replacements to step into the center of midfield. While Cameron might lack Clark's range, he does offer more size and strength, which may provide just as effective a shield as the one Clark offered. As for Davis, he has long been one of the Dynamo's bigger creative forces, and could often be seen switching roles with Holden and delivering his pinpoint deliveries from more central locations. The move to the middle will not be that foreign to him.
"We're pretty deep in every position," added Onstad. "There will be opportunities for good players to play in those roles even though they're not as proven."
Of course, perhaps the trickier question is how the team compensates for moving Cameron and Davis to other parts of the field. Cameron was a 2009 MLS Best XI performer in the center of Houston's defense. In his stead it will likely come down to a competition between veterans Ryan Cochrane and Eddie Robinson to see who partners with Bobby Boswell. Both players have championship experience, but both also endured injury-plagued campaigns in 2009.
Cochrane underwent ankle surgery early in the season, although following a midyear trade from San Jose he had recovered sufficiently to provide some valuable spot duty along the back line. Robinson took longer to recover from microfracture surgery on his left knee, and while he was also back by season's end, he showed some understandable rust. If Robinson can reprise his Best XI form of 2007 -- and navigate through a tricky contract renegotiation -- then Houston likely won't miss a beat, but his return to peak form is by no means guaranteed.
"We're definitely going to see where [Robinson] is at," said Onstad. "But I know he's been in the gym quite often, so he'll give it everything.
"For Ryan, it's kind of a pivotal year for him to see what kind of career he's going to have. Hopefully the hunger of both guys will make it interesting."
Out wide, Corey Ashe is clearly the biggest beneficiary of Davis' expected move inside, as the left midfield slot is now his to lose. Ashe hasn't been the most consistent of performers, but his pace offers a slightly different wrinkle in attack than Houston has had in the past, and Houston's exertions in international competition have allowed Ashe to accumulate some important experience over the years.
But even if some holes remain in Houston's lineup, they have a AAA-rated insurance policy in the form of manager Dominic Kinnear, whose ability to fill holes in his roster via trades has been impressive over the years. Even on those occasions when his acquisitions haven't become consistent starters -- as was the case last year with Dominic Oduro and Cam Weaver -- at the least they've provided the kind of depth and variety to help the club ride out any difficult periods.
That looks to be precisely the case with Houston's acquisition of journeyman midfielder Kevin Harmse. Harmse is by no means a world-beater, and he's already on his fourth MLS club in as many years. But he at least provides an experienced alternative in case injuries or international commitments come calling, and Kinnear has proven adept at maximizing the performances of one-time castoffs, with Boswell and Davis among the prime examples.
Of course, what would really ease the blow of losing Clark and Holden would be designated player Luis Angel Landin playing up to his status -- and losing 20 or so pounds -- instead of becoming the poster child for DP busts.
Yet it will likely be Kinnear's improvisational abilities -- aided by the fact the team won't be burdened by participation in the CONCACAF Champions League -- that will carry the day. And for all the talk of the recent defections, Houston still has considerable talent in its midst, with players like Onstad, Ching, Boswell, Cameron and Davis providing a spine that most teams would envy. It's this combination of talent and managerial acumen that has allowed the Dynamo to maintain their elite status ever since the same core of players won the Supporters Shield in 2005 while in San Jose. And it's what will likely allow them to absorb whatever further punishment MLS dishes out.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.