The first five games of the season have been anything but easy for the Houston Dynamo, but the new-look club is sitting on a 2-1-2 record and is riding a wave of momentum after going unbeaten in the last four games.
There were plenty of questions about this Houston team ahead of the season: Who would score goals? Did Houston make too many changes too soon? Could Coach Kinnear continue to get the most out of an undervalued squad? What role would the veterans play on this team? And, so far, it seems that the Dynamo have answered those questions and are already exceeding expectations.
The two questions that has no been answered thus far are: How will Houston deal with injuries? And, When needed, will Houston's reserves be ready to step up and play? Both of those questions look likely to be answered on Saturday night when the Dynamo travel to Chicago to take on the struggling Chicago Fire.
To give you an idea of what injury struggles the Dynamo are dealing with, let's take a look at the latest injury report. Dynamo forward and captain Brian Ching continues to be sidelined by a rib injury, Calen Carr is still out with a lingering head injury, Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor has yet to recover from his foot sprain picked up three weeks ago, young midfielder Francisco Navas Cobo picked up a hamstring injury earlier this week, and starters Lovel Palmer and Danny Cruz are out with tendinitis and a knee injury, respectively. So with four starters out, who will step up and play for Houston?
With all of the injuries, it is hard to say who will start for Houston, but there are a few known starters. Let's take a look at a few of the possibilities.
The forward tandem of Cam Weaver and Will Bruin looks likely to get its third consecutive start. Cam Weaver failed to live up to expectations last season, but has looked like a different player so far in 2011. His work rate has been incredible and his passing, crossing, and shooting has been markedly improved. When paired with Will Bruin, the confident rookie, Weaver seems to play at ease and with confidence. Bruin, who is full of confidence and expectations has looked very good this season, despite not finding the back of the net as much as possible. The young forward's runs have been good and his shot has looked strong.
Much of the forward's success has come from the excellent service of Houston's resurgent midfield. Brad Davis continues to lead the charge, being instrumental on set pieces, and driving the attack from the left flank. Against Vancouver, Davis had assists on all three goals and was excellent again against the New England Revolution last week. He is assured a starting spot alongside Geoff Cameron, who is still finding his legs as Houston's central-attacking midfielder. Houston's number-one utility player has played all over the pitch over the last three seasons, and is still finding his way in the middle of the field. Cameron's first touch has been lacking and his passing a bit inconsistent, but when he makes runs and opens up the defense, Houston plays much better. For Cameron, the most important part of Houston's trip on Saturday is leaving injury free. If you remember, it was on the road against Chicago last season when Cameron picked up his knee injury.
The other two midfield spots are wide open due to Cruz's and Palmer's injuries. Corey Ashe, the usual back-up right midfielder, has found new life as Houston's left back, but could return to the midfield against Chicago. if Coach Kinnear opts not to change a good thing that works, then Colin Clark could see his first MLS start for Houston, starting on the right side of the midfield. Lovel Palmer's back-up situation is a bit more interesting. Fellow Jamaican midfielder and new Dynamo player JeVaughn Watson could be forced to quickly make his mark for Houston. Watson was signed last week before the close of the transfer window after two trials and two separate sets of contact negotiations. The experienced Jamaican can play in either central midfield position and seems likely to start behind Geoff Cameron against Chicago.
If Coach Kinnear keeps Corey Ashe at left back, then Houston's back line will likely not vary from that of week's past. The defensive group of Ashe, Bobby Boswell, Andre Hainault, and Hunter Freeman has looked much stronger and managed to pick up its first shut-out of 2011 against the Revolution. If Ashe does start in the midfield, then Mike Chabala could get his first start of the season, or you could see Eddie Robinson start in the middle, pushing Andre Hainault out to the left back position.
Despite all of the injuries, Saturday night's match in Chicago is very winnable for Houston. This year's Chicago Fire squad is very different then that of year's past and has already struggled in the first few games of the season. Coach Carlos de los Cobos has already shuffled goalkeepers a number of times and has seen his defense give up eleven goals.
It won't be easy for Houston though, Marco Pappa could give Corey Ashe his toughest test of the season and former Houston Dynamo forward Dominic Oduro will want to run at Houston's back line in hopes of punishing his old club.
- The Dynamo enter Saturday's game on a five-game road unbeaten streak, dating back to a 3-1 win at D.C.United on Sept. 25, 2010. Houston is 2-0-3 on the road since a 4-3 loss at Kansas City on Sept. 22, 2010.
- This year, the Dynamo have tied both road matches 1-1 (at Seattle, at New York).Houston is off to the second-best five-game start in club history, collecting eight points from its first five games. The only better start came in the club's inaugural season of 2006, when the Dynamo opened the season with nine points in their first five games (3-2-0).
- In two away games this year, Houston has been outshot 48-15 (17-7 on goal) but has come away with two ties. In three contests at home, the Dynamo have outshot opponents 66-23 (17-7 on goal), going 2-1.
- Sunday's match against New England yielded the first shutout for the Dynamo in 2011. Goalkeeper Tally Hall made just one save in recording the clean sheet, the second of his MLS career and his sixth for Houston in all competitions. It was Hall's first shutout since a SuperLiga match against Puebla on July 21, 2010.
- Through Sunday's games, the Dynamo defense ranked fifth in MLS with four goals allowed. Houston midfielder Geoff Cameron is expected to make his 100th career appearance for the Dynamo in all competitions on Saturday, making him the 14th player in club history to reach that milestone. Currently, Cameron has started 77 of his 99 Houston appearances. Brian Mullan remains Houston's all-time leader with 184 appearances in all competitions from 2006-10.
- Defender Bobby Boswell and midfielder Lovel Palmer are the only two Houston players to play all 570 minutes of the club's season so far in all competitions, including the team's U.S. Open Cup qualifier.
Houston Dynamo - OUT: FW Calen Carr (concussion); FW Brian Ching (L rib separation); DF Jermaine Taylor (R foot sprain); MF Francisco Navas Cobo (R hamstring strain); MF Danny Cruz (R knee hyperextension); MF Lovel Palmer (L lower leg tendinitis)
Chicago Fire - OUT: MF Mike Banner (L Achilles tendinitis); DF Steven Kinney (R Achilles repair); DOUBTFUL: DF Cory Gibbs (L hamstring strain); MF Marko Maric (L ankle sprain) ...
- REFEREE: Mark Geiger. SAR (bench): Hector Vergara; JAR (opposite): Adam Wienckowski; 4th: Ismail Elfath
- MLS Career: 79 games; FC/gm: 26.7; Y/gm: 3.8; R: 14; pens: 2
Project Houston Dynamo Starting XI
F: Will Bruin
F: Cam Weaver
LM: Brad Davis (C)
CAM: Geoff Cameron
CDM: JeVaughn Watson
RM: Colin Clark
LB: Corey Ashe
CB: Bobby Boswell
CB: Andre Hainault
RB: Hunter Freeman
GK: Tally Hall
Substitutes: Tyler Deric (GK), Jason Garey, Kofi Sarkodie, Josue Soto, Eddie Robinson, Mike Chabala, Alex Dixon
Check back here closer to kickoff for the full game day roster for both the Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire. Also, don't forget to follow here for live, in-game updates and feel free to check out Dynamo Theory for Zach's game stream.