Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 14-9-11 (53 points); 48 GF / 41 GA (+7 GD)
There was a time, which seems long, long ago now, when the Houston Dynamo were considered boring. They were flat, predictable and guaranteed to play 4-4-2. They’d bend in about 35 crosses a game, defend deep, kill you on set pieces and really didn’t have much interest in keeping the ball.
So said the conventional wisdom, anyway.
Dominic Kinnear wasn’t hearing any of that in 2012, however. In what was perhaps the tactical shift of the year, Kinnear flipped his Dynamo into a 4-3-3 around the beginning of June and subsequently saw the team rip off a long undefeated streak, put together some of the prettiest passing sequences of the year (including a 23-pass move to for a goal vs. Sporting KC, the longest goalscoring play in MLS this season), and generally make the critics eat entire tomes of their own words.
Houston were flat-out pretty. They still had the boom-ball pedigree, and still murdered you on set pieces, but this was a team that would rather keep the ball on the ground and build a chance rather than snatch at one off a turnover or a break-out.
Nonetheless, not everything was smooth sailing for the Dynamo. The 4-3-3 worked until Will Bruin (who had a breakout year with 18 goals in all competitions) and Mac Kandji (who didn’t have a breakout year, sadly) stopped scoring. Ricardo Clark took some time to re-integrate into the squad after his midseason return. Geoff Cameron was not as good in early 2012 as he was in late 2011, though that didn’t deter Stoke, and eventually he had to be replaced.
Between the Lines: Dynamic 4-3-3
But for every negative, there was a positive. Kofie Sarkodie started living up to his potential as a right back. Brian Ching proved to be one of the league’s most effective strikers off the bench, putting up five goals with another five assists, offering Kinnear additional flexibility and quite possibly prolonging his playing career by another year. They also waltzed through the CONCACAF Champions League group stage using, for the most part, their second stringers.
They ended up flipping it back to a 4-4-2 by late summer, but it was a different kind of 4-4-2 than Houston had played earlier in the season. They still held onto the ball for long stretches, and ended up winning the possession battle in 27 of 34 regular-season matches. Bruin and Calen Carr developed a good partnership up top, with Carr running the channels and Bruin poaching. Brad Davis was equally effective inside or out wide, and Boniek García was arguably the acquisition of the season, playing three different spots (and all of them well).
There’s all that to take and build upon for 2013. The only concern – and it’s a real one – is whether Carr can come back and be as effective after his second ACL tear in four years. The realistic answer is “probably not.”
That is the one outstanding personnel issue they need to address, especially since they’ve already beefed up the central defense with the acquisition of Eric Brunner.
Otherwise, the Dynamo look stacked. They’re only going to get better as they get to know each other through a full preseason, and as Bruin – most especially Bruin – improves. There’s no reason to think he won’t, by the way, given his progress from year one to year two.
Are they the Eastern Conference favorites? Quite possibly. SKC will have something to say about that, and maybe D.C. as well.
But what they definitely aren’t anymore is “predictable.” Kinnear’s proved his in-game tactical chops repeatedly, and now he’s done it on a larger scale. Fear this Houston team, folks.