A new season brings new faces and a sense that anything is possible. When Columbus Crew SC and the Houston Dynamo kickoff on Saturday night, that's exactly how the players and fans of both teams will feel.
The Dynamo have a new coach in Owen Coyle, but return many of their key players from previous years. There are new faces in Houston that will help provide depth in 2015.
After a successful first year under head coach Gregg Berhalter, Crew SC return the core of the team that finished third in the Eastern Conference a year ago. With a few tweaks to the lineup, Berhalter and his staff hope for an even better 2015.
Both teams look to get off to a good start in 2015. How might things play out? Derek Stowers of Dynamo Theory and I exchange some questions to get some perspective on the teams headed into the season and the opening match,
Questions for Dynamo Theory
Massive Report: No Dominic Kinnear on the sideline for Houston in the first time in, well, ever. First, how weird has that been for everyone involved with the Dynamo? Second, what were the main differences under new manager Owen Coyle in the preseason and what is expected of him?
Dynamo Theory: Not having Dominic Kinnear will be very weird for a lot of players, especially those that have been around Kinnear for most of their career, or in some cases their entire career. Kinnear was very much a players' coach here and was a huge part of the success that the Dynamo have seen in their short time in Houston. While most Dynamo fans are sad to see Kinnear move on, many believed it was time for someone new to take over.
Enter Owen Coyle. The former Bolton and Wigan manager is strikingly similar to Kinnear in many ways. He is a players' type of coach and employs similar tactics to Kinnear, but he differs in a few areas. Kinnear led squads are notorious for their strict formations (either the 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3) while Coyle is more fluid in his approach to his tactics. Coyle may start a game in a 4-5-1 but it may evolve into a 4-4-2 as the game goes on. Dom liked to put out the strongest possible lineup week in and week out, whereas OC is also a big rotational guy that likes to give other players minutes in order to rest other players. This could be huge for double week games, long trips, and other competitions.
Houston fans always expect the team to do well, and having a new coach (and missing the playoffs) is unknown territory to us. We know that this is a transitional period and we can't expect Coyle to win an MLS Cup his first year in the states, but missing the playoffs again would be a major no-no, even in the West. I think most fans realistically expect a run at a low seed in the playoffs.
MR: Not too many major additions for Houston in the offseason, but who are a couple of players Crew SC fans should be aware of that might make an impact for the Dynamo in this game and on the season?
DT: Center back Raúl Rodríguez is our big signing this offseason...other than our other big name, which won't arrive until sometime this summer. Addressing our defense was the team's top priority this offseason and Rodríguez looks to shore up an uncharacteristically leaky defense. I've watched a lot of Rodríguez and he is the real deal. Coming over from Espanyol in La Liga, he's played against some of the best in the world and he brings a lot of tact to the center back position. He has a lot of vision for a defensive player, can pass the ball well, makes extremely well timed and acrobatic tackles, and can bring the ball out of the back. His fluency in both English and Spanish helps bridge the gap between some of our players and his role as a leader in the back is establishing itself early on.
MR: It's obviously early days in MLS but how far do those around the organization think Houston can go this year?
DT: Like I mentioned above, missing the playoffs is something that is completely unacceptable for Dynamo fans. Dynamo team president Chris Canetti has said that this team is ready to compete immediately, and we believe him. The roster isn't radically different from last year's squad, but I'm in the camp that believes it doesn't need to be. Injuries and international call-ups obliterated this squad last year (seriously, three ACL injuries and two concussions with three key players called up). When the squad was healthy, and Luis Garrido and DaMarcus Beasley joined the group, the team was solid. We've strengthened our backline with Rodríguez and will eventually have a proven MLS goal scorer in Erick "Cubo" Torres. Throw in a midfield led by Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia, and Ricardo Clark, and this is a very competitive squad. Will it be able to compete in the Western Conference? This team can make the playoffs (despite what nearly every media outlet says), but likely won't go further than the first or second round.
Questions for Massive Report
Dynamo Theory: On paper, Columbus Crew SC looks like a team that could compete for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The team has re-tooled itself adding players like Kei Kamara (a player Dynamo fans are familiar with). How has the team looked in preseason and is this team gelling already or are there still things that could use tweaking as the season goes on?
Massive Report: The preseason was a mixed bag of results. Crew SC dominated lower level clubs, but went 0-2 against MLS opposition, losing 3-1 in their preseason opener to FC Dallas and falling on penalty kicks to the Philadelphia Union (although that game was played in horrid conditions). Head coach Gregg Berhalter has stressed that results don't matter in the preseason and that he's liked what he's seen from his players. He's the expert, but I think the team struggled when pressed, which was an issue a year ago.
For the most part, the team is pretty gelled (is that a word?). Most of the core from last year remains, with new faces sprinkled in. The talk around preseason was how quickly they were able to focus on new things because most of the guys knew the system already.
Whether this means they will actually hit the ground running in 2015 is unknown. Last year they got off to the best start in team history before struggling to find the right group of players. If there's a major regression from Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram, two of the team's top scorers and assist men a year ago, on the wings and the other players don't pick up the slack, this team could be searching for answers.
DT: When I see this Crew squad, I see a team built for attacking and pressing the ball. Kamara, Federico Higuain, and Ethan Finlay all stick out as dangerous players over the ball. What are some ways the Dynamo defense can neutralize these players from influencing the game?
MR; As I mentioned above, this team has struggled when they are pressed. The team likes to possess the ball and make the other team work hard to get it back. When the opposition plays high and their attacking players make it difficult, it caused problems last year for the Black and Gold (specifically against the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union). This style isn't easy for the opponent to maintain throughout a game, but it has proven useful against Columbus.
Although this involves the entire team defending and not just the defenders, it is the best way to neutralize the Black and Gold's attack. Stop it before it starts type of thing.
Last year, Houston had success against Crew SC using their size up front as an advantage, especially on set pieces. This year, Columbus has Emanuel Pogatetz and Kei Kamara, who are supposed to help on set pieces especially, so this may not work as well in 2015.
DT; The Columbus Crew made the playoffs last season but eventually fell to MLS Cup runner-ups the New England Revolution. What are some of the expectations around the Crew Camp about how far this team can go?
MR: I think it varies quite a bit to be honest. I think most people expect the team to make the playoffs again, but I've seen people predicting them to finish anywhere from fifth to first in the East.
I think most reasonable minds see them ending up about where they finished last year, with the potential to make a deeper run in the playoffs now that most players have postseason experience.
I think it will be a fun season for the Black and Gold. I could see them getting off to a slow start, as I don't believe the preseason went as smooth as the team is saying based on the games I saw. It'll be exiting to see it all kickoff Saturday!