The Seattle Sounders' challenging stretch to open the season continues tomorrow at Qwest Field. The bad news is that by the end of the game Seattle will have played three games while nearly every other team in the league will have played one. The good news is that this week's opponent is the first that isn't a likely MLS Cup contender. The other good news is that Steve Zakuani should be back on the pitch. The other bad news is that Brian Ching is likely to be fit as well. Okay, the good news/bad news format's starting to wear thin.
The Dynamo are as big a question mark as any team in the league. After four initial years of dominance that included four playoff runs, two MLS Cup championships, and two appearances in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, Houston was looking like the next MLS dynasty. But last season the wheels came off and the team finished second from the bottom of the Western Conference and out of the playoffs.
The question for Dynamo faithful is whether last season was just an anomaly or whether it's the beginning of a new reality the boys in Orange. The optimists will point to the fact that the architect of Houston's rise — head coach Dominic Kinnear — is still in place and some key players who were injured for significant stretches last season — including Ching and midfielder Geoff Cameron — are back to full health. Pessimists will point out that the club went into freefall after the losses of critical midfield pieces Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark as well as offensive contributor Kei Kamara, and none of them have been effectively replaced. Add to that the fact that Ching, the team's leading scorer in every year of its existence, will celebrate his 33rd birthday in May and the team gave up the second most goals in the league last season, meaning they have problems both on offense and defense.
So for the first month or so of the season Houston will be an enigma while we wait to find out whether 2010 represented the new reality for the Dynamo. The evidence of week one was a cruel 1-0 home loss to the sophomore Philadelphia Union. And tomorrow they'll have to play the Sounders at Qwest in the rain in front of 36,000 people who keenly remember the first round playoff exit in 2009.
As a FIFA-approved international break, this weekend will do a number on a lot of MLS rosters. Fortunately, the Sounders escape without any losses. Houston will be without new signing and Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor, who started in the season opener. They'll also be without substitute forward Dominic Oduro, who was traded this week for the injured Calen Carr. Ching returns from injury to fill one forward spot, and Zach Woosley at Dynamo Theory predicts that the other might go to Jason Garey, who started last week alongside rookie Will Bruin.
On the Sounders side, we should see Zakuani back in action, which will be a relief to fans who were used to seeing some pace on the sidelines. Nate Jaqua is still listed as doubtful, but he may make an appearance, which would be a relief to fans who'd like to see a tall offensive threat on the field again. The midfield is still an open question, with Alvaro Fernandez, Erik Friberg, and Mauro Rosales all available and competent enough to fill the wide right and box-to-box central midfield roles.
- Brad Davis vs The Rain - Davis still pulls the strings in the midfield and is for my money the second best deadball specialist in the league when David Beckham decides he's an MLS player. But a wet ball and a wet pitch may dampen his wizardry enough to counter that danger.
- Zakuani vs Kofi Sarkodie/Hunter Freeman - Freeman started last week at right back, but top draft pick Sarkodie is waiting in the wings. Both are new to the team (Freeman was signed back to MLS from Norway in the offseason) and Zak will have a chance to welcome them to the MLS in style tomorrow. Sarkodie would be an intriguing choice as both he and Zakuani are Akron Zips and he has the speed that might encourage Kinnear to favor that matchup.
- Jhon Kennedy Hurtado vs Ching - Hurtado's clearly still getting back into the mental game after being out for so much of last season. In his two games he's shown repeated flashes of the brilliance that endeared him so quickly to Sounders fans, but he's also shown an ability to get beaten for pace and get caught behind attackers. Fortunately for him, Ching isn't a pacey threat. He's a bruiser, and Hurtado should be able to hold him in check. If he does, there isn't much offensive threat left on the Dynamo and Seattle should be able to control the game.