This is Part IV in a six part Houston Dynamo season preview:
Part IV: Forwards
The forward position has been the most frequently discussed issue for the Houston Dynamo this preseason with Will Bruin as the focal point. After delivering 12 goals during the regular season and 4 in the playoffs in 2012, Bruin dropped off to 8 in the regular season and 2 in the playoffs during 2013. I have previously written about Bruin’s struggles with hitting the back of the net, converting only 9.4% of his shots in 2013. During this preseason Bruin went from bad to worse, scoring only against the Dynamo Academy in the opener and converting at a rate of around 5%.
For now, Bruin remains a starter but unless he turns things around, the pressure will build for Dom Kinnear to send him to the bench. I do not have high hopes based on what I have seen during this preseason. I tend to discount strong preseason performances as the opponents are generally weaker than those the team will face during the regular season. However, when I see a player struggling against inferior competition, I grow increasingly concerned.
Bruin is not a great dribbler – he gets the ball stuck under his feet far too often, he is not a pacey player, his runs off the ball are average, his passing is inconsistent at times (although he did have 7 assists in 2013), he is not a strong long range shooter and he cannot create opportunities for himself. He is a poacher; right place, right time and put the ball in the back of the net. He works hard, which is partly why Kinnear likes him, but if he is not scoring then frankly he is really not of much use. I foresee Bruin performing similarly to last season, although I will gladly eat my hat if he proves me wrong.
If Bruin keeps up at this pace, where will the goals come from? This is where the good news comes into play. A noticeably fitter Giles Barnes has been consistently solid this preseason. In his first season as a forward, Barnes led the team in scoring during the regular season with 9 goals. He co-lead the team in scoring in the preseason with 5. With a year of learning the position under his belt, I believe Barnes is poised to have a breakout season in 2014.
Barnes is everything that Bruin is not. Skillful on the ball, Barnes can create opportunities for himself as well as setting up teammates. Barnes is pacey, he can score from long range (anyone who saw the match against Seattle last season still remembers his rocket from 30 yards out) and his off-the-ball positioning and runs are improving.
I believe Barnes is capable of bagging 10-15 goals this season, which would be an outstanding return for a Dynamo forward. People often forget that the Dynamo have rarely had players score in the 10-15 goal range; apart from Bruin, others to have scored in double digits during the regular season and the number of times they did it are: Dwayne De Rosario (1) and Brian Ching (2). Double digit goal scoring is pretty hallowed ground for the Dynamo.
Apart from Barnes, Omar Cummings looks fully returned to health from his injuries of last season. Cummings was the hero of the playoffs with two key goals against New York Red Bulls. He is a pacey striker as well who can get behind defenses and create off the dribble. Cummings has only scored in double digits once in his MLS career, a 14 goal tally for Colorado in 2010, but is able to set teammates up as well (he had 12 assists in 2009). If he remains healthy and gets the playing time, Cummings is likely good for 8-12 goals.
Barnes and Bruin will be the initial starters this season, but I would be interested to see how a Barnes/Cummings partnership might work. Unfortunately, we did not get to assess how the two might work together during preseason as they were never paired up. If Bruin struggles, however, Barnes/Cummings could become the preferred pairing. Their joint pace could well terrorize opposing back lines and open things up a bit more for Boniek Garcia, Brad Davis and Tony Cascio in the midfield.
The other two forwards on the roster are rookie 2nd round pick Mark Sherrod and 2nd year player Jason Johnson. Johnson has played almost exclusively on the left side of the midfield during preseason where he struggled. Johnson has pace and creativity, but it looks like he might have to go to Pittsburgh on loan to demonstrate it.
Sherrod is an intriguing player. He is the only player on the roster who is a bona fide target man. He showed well during the preseason, demonstrating his aerial and hold up skills plus linking well with teammates. He even showed a bit of deceiving pace for a big man. With his preseason play and his aerial abilities, he may have worked his way into the rotation as a late game substitute in situations where the Dynamo are down and begin hurling balls into the box hoping for someone to get on the end of one.
Conclusion: As with much of the roster, the outlook is a bit hazy. If my projections hold true and the Dynamo manage 20 or more goals out of their starting forwards, then this group has done its job and the team as a whole will be on solid footing for the playoffs. If Bruin continues to miss quality scoring opportunities and nobody steps up to fill the gap, however, then the Dynamo will likely struggle through the season much as they did last season. For now, as wishy-washy as it sounds, there is probably a 50/50 chance that things could go either way, which colors the position grade as well. The other concern is a lack of depth. If one of the top 3 forwards goes down with long-term injury, as happened last season, there are no proven players ready to step in.
Position Grade: C+ with potential
Next up: a review of tactical options, starting lineups and which players might be sent on loan to Pittsburgh.
Tags: Houston Dynamo