By THOMAS FLOYD
By the end of the 2011 MLS season, Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear was pressing all the right buttons.
After spending the campaign's first six months tinkering with a lineup that could never quite find the right chemistry, Kinnear shifted midfielder Geoff Cameron to centerback after a 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 10. Houston promptly went a 4-0-2 tear to end the season and clinch the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, eventually knocking off Philadelphia and Kansas City en route to the MLS Cup final.
While the Los Angeles Galaxy ultimately felled Houston to claim the league title, the Dynamo walked away knowing they had the pieces in place to compete for the franchise's third championship. With Cameron anchoring the defense, Most Valuable Player runner-up Brad Davis manning the left flank and, after a tumultuous offseason, captain Brian Ching back in the fold up top, that same group is ready to make another run.
"Anytime you can keep the core of your team together, it's a huge thing," Davis said. "You've got your group of guys that knows what it takes, knows the work it took last year to get where we were, and they know the expectations heading into this year."
Here is a closer look at the Dynamo ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
HOUSTON DYNAMO SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 12-9-13, 49 points (second in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Macoumba Kandji, M Nathan Sturgis, F Colin Rolfe, GK Erich Marscheider
KEY LOSSES: M Danny Cruz, F Carlo Costly, D Hunter Freeman, D Eddie Robinson, F Jason Garey, M Francisco Navas Cobo
Going into this season, Houston returns 10 of its 11 starters from the MLS Cup final. And the one player who exited — winger Danny Cruz — had been filling in on the right side for the injured Colin Clark, who does return.
"Experience can be important, knowing how the league is, knowing what the coaches expect or what the team expects from each other," Kinnear said. "So that's not to say we'll go through the season undefeated and beat everybody 5-0, but the continuity is always important."
This past offseason, however, was far from a straightforward affair for the Dynamo. Centerback Bobby Boswell, who formed such an effective partnership with Cameron down the stretch last year, was initially listed as available on the club's re-entry draft list before agreeing to a new deal to stay in Houston.
But more infamously, Ching spent the majority of his offseason as a Montreal Impact player after the club unexpectedly plucked the veteran striker in November's expansion draft. Following months in limbo, during which he suited up for Montreal as the team kicked off preseason despite threats he would retire, Ching was traded back to Houston last month for a conditional draft pick.
With the Dynamo opening their long-awaited soccer-specific home, BBVA Compass Stadium, on May 12, it only seems appropriate Ching, who has been with Houston for all six of the franchise's seasons, will be poised to lead his team onto the field for that historic occasion.
"I don't know if there was one player who deserves to be a Houston Dynamo player walking into that new stadium more than he does," Kinnear said. "He deserves to be a part of that, and I'm glad that we reached an agreement to have him here."
Aside from the Ching saga, though, Houston has been fairly quiet on the transaction front. Nathan Sturgis, picked up in a trade with Toronto, will add depth in central midfield behind starters Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo. And forward Macoumba Kandji, acquired from Colorado, will compete with Calen Carr, Cam Weaver and Will Bruin for the starting slot alongisde Ching.
Heading into their March 11 opener at Chivas USA — a game played at the Home Depot Center, the site of Houston's MLS Cup defeat — the Dynamo are monitoring the progress of Davis, who missed the league title game after suffering a torn quadriceps in the Eastern Conference final. Although he was limited in preseason, Davis did play the full 90 minutes this past weekend in Orlando, Fla., in a Disney Pro Soccer Classic loss to Dallas.
"It's been tough in the games actually, just trying to get my feet back underneath me after being out for so long, but I think things are coming together well," Davis said. "The last game was good. I got into the attack quite a bit, got some opportunities. Hopefully I'll keep progressing in the right direction."
Before Houston debuts BBVA Compass Stadium, the team will embark on a seven-game road trip to start the season. After going just 2-6-9 away from home last year, the Dynamo are looking at the trying stretch as a chance to prove themselves as an improved road team, Davis said.
And once the new stadium does open its doors, Houston will be more than ready to embrace a place it can truly call home for the first time in organization history.
"It's tough for me to put into words," Davis said. "It's still surreal, driving by it every day, knowing it's going to be here very soon. I know the rest of the team is amped and geared and ready to go and get this season started, and especially that May 12 opener."