Thursday, January 12, 2006

MLS Houston

Now that we have an MLS team here in town - although we've got no name just yet - I thought I would go over a very brief history of the franchise, and spend a little time looking at the team we've got coming to town.

First off, the new Houston soccer club is the relocation of the old San Jose Earthquakes franchise. San Jose were an original member of MLS back in 1996, joining the league as the San Jose Clash. They spent the first few seasons as one of the worst franchises in the league (the positions below are total in league, not finishing playoff positions):

1996: 7th (of 10)
1997: 10th (of 10)
1998: 10th (of 12)
1999: 7th (of 12 - but missed playoffs due to 5th in West)
2000: 12th (of 12) - this is also the season that he franchise was re-branded as the Earthquakes

But then things got turned around...much due to a young 19 year-old kid by the name of Landon Donovan. In 2001, the Quakes finished 3d in the league overall (out of 10), and won the playoffs to raise their first MLS Cup, defeating their arch-rival LA Galaxy 2-1 in the Cup final.

The next season, 2002, the team stayed hot, finishing the regular season second in the league (out of 10), but were bounced out of the first round of the MLS playoffs.

In 2003, San Jose again finished the regular season second in the league (out of 10), but were able to crush the Supporter's Shield winner Chicago Fire in the MLS Cup final 4-2 to lift their second Cup in two years.

2004 turned into a down year for the defending champs, finishing 7th (of 10) losing once again in the first round of the MLS playoffs.

Coming off a down year, many expected the Quakes to really struggle in 2005. They had lost F/M Donovan - first to Germany, then heartbreakingly, to the LA Galaxy when Donovan came back to MLS. In addition, SJ had traded or lost many of the veteran leaders on the team for the past several years (including Richard Mulrooney, Jeff Agoos, Ronnie Ekelund, etc.). But manager Dominic Kinnear was able to keep the young team together, finishing 1st (of 12), winning the Supporter's Shield (regular season champion), and Kinnear himself took home coach-of-the-year honors. The season didn't end quite as well - losing in the first round of the playoffs to the rival Galaxy. But still, a very successful season overall.

But where is the team at today as it moves to Houston? Well, first, some general notes. The team is still quite young - with only 4 of the24 members of the roster over 30 years old.

How about roster changes to date? One of the few veterans just retired last week. Mark Chung - 10 year veteran of MLS and former US Nat - called it quits on his career. He was still very effective last year - picking up 6 goals and 7 assists - and not one of the worse left sided midfielders in the league. Another off-season loss has been Danny Califf, an MLS veteran central defender. 2005 was Califf's first year with the Quakes, after having spent the previous five years of his career with the Galaxy. Califf is an occasional US nat, but he only played in 20 games (career low) last year due to injury. Califf has signed to play for a club team in Europe (I believe in Denmark) and provided excellent depth, but should not be a devastating loss for this side.

So let's take a look at the roster going into the 2006 SuperDraft at the end of this month.

GK - The starter, Pat Onstad, has been one of the better GK's in the league for the past four or five years. The Canadian national team member finished 2005 with the best goals-against average in MLS, and garnered the MLS Keeper of the Year award. So, the Houston club is pretty set in the nets. The one concern is that Onstad is getting older, he will be 38 years-old this season. Houston does not have a lot of depth at GK, with Robby Fulton - who has absolutely zero MLS experience - the only other keeper on the roster. Depth at GK is one area that will need to be addressed going into 2006.

D - The defense was one of the clear strengths of this side in 2005. The back line starts with probably the best left back in MLS, Wade Barrett. Barrett came back to MLS in 2005 after a few seasons playing in Denmark. On the right is young Kelly Gray, who came over from Chicago to kick-start his career and claimed the right-back position as his own. In the center, as noted above, the team has lost Califf, but returns solid defender Eddie Robinson, who after a couple of injury plauged seasons finally claimed a starting spot in the defense. Replacing Califf in the middle will likely be Ryan Cochrane, a rookie last year who played in 14 games (starting 6), Cochrance will have to prove that he is up to the high standard of this defense. The other defenders on the roster are primarily quite young, including: the one vet, Craig Waibel, who has been in the legaue since 2000; third year pro Chris Aloisi; second year Kevin Goldthwaite; second year Brett Rodriguez; and second year James Twellman. The unproven youth of the defense is a concern, and will need to be addressed either by acquisition, or drafting of a top-flight, can't miss defender in the draft.

M - The new Houston club will have one of the most exciting and up-and-coming central midfield pairing in MLS. Kinnear made a decision last year to move forward Dwayne DeRosario back into an attacking midfield role, and it turned out to be a perfect move. DeRosario is a Canadian international who brings excitement and big-time GOOOOOAAAALLLLLAAAAZZZZOOOOO!!!!!!!!'s to the pitch game in and game out...and he has won the MLS goal of the year honors two years in a row - including a absolutely incredible free kick strike last year that bent three different times before hitting the top corner of the net. Pairing with DeRosario in the middle is young two-way holding midfielder Ricardo Clark. Clark never really found his place in NY with the Metrostars, where he was restricted to a rightback, or exclusively defensive midfield role. But giving the freedom of playing both ways in central midfield brought about the emergence of his career, and callups to US national camps. Out on the wings, the Houston club is very strong as well. Left midfielder Brad Davis started the season as one of the hottest players in MLS after coming to San Jose from Dallas (SJ being his third team in four seasons). He even earned a call up the the national team before suffering an injury that ended the rest of his season...and also saw the acquisition of Chung who was very good for the Quakes on the left. With Chung's retirement, Davis becomes the starter once again. On the right is M/F Brian Mullan, who has speed and fitness to burn, and blazes up and down the wing. Second year defensive midfielder Danny O'Rourke, first round pick in last year's SuperDraft, provides solid depth in the middle. Ian Russell is a long time veteran providing depth on the right wing. The rest of the midfield is again, very very young with very little experience, including second year Tighe Dombrowski; second year Aaron Lanes, and second year Chris Wondolowski.

F - The big man up front for the Houston club is occasional US international Brian Ching - maybe the best target forward in MLS. Unfortunately, Ching has struggled with injury problems, missing large portions of 2003 and 2005. But when he is healthy, he is one of the most prolific goal scorers in MLS. His partner up front is generally Venzuelan Alejandro Moreno who claimed the starting spot after coming over from the LA Galaxy where he had spent the last few seasons as a super-sub. Off the bench, the team will have longtime veteran forward Ronald Cerritos, and second year Julian Nash. Foward is another area that although strong (especially when DeRosario and Mullen are considered forwards), the depth could be addressed in the offseason.

My feeling is that depth is the biggest concern for this squad - depth at keeper, defender, and forward. But, going into 2006, Houston looks to have a solid squad with which to attack its first season in MLS.

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