With the start of the MLS season six weeks away -- labor negotiations permitting -- Houston Dynamo forward Luis Angel Landin finds himself at something of a crossroads. Will he be the second coming of Juan Pablo Angel, or will he simply be Denilson 2.0 (who flopped with Dallas)? As it stands now, it could go either way.
When the Dynamo's designated player arrived on loan this past August after serving stints with Mexican sides Monarcas Morelia and Cruz Azul, it was clear he possessed a craftiness on the ball and a striking ability that could shred opposing defenses. Unfortunately, just as obvious was the extra weight he was carrying. That lack of fitness saw Landin net just one goal in seven regular-season appearances and led to a case of tendinitis in his left knee that reduced him to bit-part status by the time the playoffs rolled around.
The thinking, of course, was the long MLS offseason would give the Mexican international ample time to get into the kind of shape needed to maximize his immense talent. But both Landin and Houston manager Dominic Kinnear admitted that when the former Pachuca forward showed up for the opening of training camp earlier this month, he was far from peak fitness.
In response to a series of questions submitted via e-mail, Landin said through a team spokesman, "When I came back to Houston in late January I didn't come back at a weight that was both to my satisfaction and the satisfaction of the coaching staff. I'm working hard because I want to hit the ground running once the season starts for us."
Kinnear was a bit blunter in his assessment.
"[Landin] is in the exact same shape as he was last year," the Dynamo manager said in a telephone interview before refusing to comment further on the matter.
Kinnear's reluctance to elaborate is understandable. Houston is a mere two weeks into its preseason, and time remains for the talented forward to turn things around. But the fact that Landin reported to camp out of shape has to be setting off alarm bells. The Dynamo have long been a team whose locker-room chemistry has carried it through difficult times, and having a player chew up a designated player salary while underperforming could do much to undermine that cohesion. The fact that the team is trying to retool its midfield in the wake of the departures of Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark makes Landin's contribution even more critical.
It's a situation of which Kinnear is well aware, and he emphasized he needs Landin at his best.
"In this day of modern football, you need all 11 players to be able to play at a good pace tactically and physically for 90 minutes," Kinnear said. "That's one of the things we need from [Landin] to be a productive player for us."
It raises the question of whether Houston would be better off by cutting its losses and letting Landin go if matters don't improve, a step that was thought to be unthinkable when he first arrived. But a league spokesman confirmed that there is no opt-out clause in Landin's loan agreement, meaning for better or for worse, he will remain with Houston until the deal expires at the end of this season.
So for the present, all the Dynamo can do is continue to work with the player and see whether he can live up to his billing, a process complicated by the fact that he sustained a sprained right ankle in this past weekend's 4-0 exhibition victory over SMU. Early indications are that the injury is minor, and Kinnear said Landin should miss only around a week, but it's a development that neither player nor coach needs.
For his part, Landin now seems willing to put in the extra effort needed to get fit, coming in early each day for extra fitness sessions. He also seems to have grasped the difficulty of adapting to life outside Mexico.
"My transition was not only to a different style of soccer but also to a different language, a different country, a different team, different coaches, different foods, you name it," Landin said. "It has been very difficult not only for me but also for my family. Now that the dust has settled a bit, things are different. I have more time to focus 100 percent on soccer, and not on outside things."
Landin admitted the level of culture shock he experienced extended to MLS as well.
"The level of soccer in this country has impressed me, from my first day in the league up until today," he said. "In Mexico we're all under the wrong impression that the level of soccer in the U.S. is low. However, that is definitely not the case. When you get here, you find out quickly that the level of play is very high. Does it need to improve still? Definitely, but the level of soccer is currently very good. When you come to MLS, you have to come ready to play."
Houston can only hope that when it opens the season against Dallas on March 27, Landin backs up his words with his play on the field.
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.