Houston Dynamo Season Preview Part II: Defense


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This is Part II in a six part season preview:

Part I: Goalkeepers

Part II: Defense

Part III: Midfield

Part IV: Forwards

Part V: Tactical and Lineup Outlook

Part VI: Season Predictions

Prior to the start of the preseason, I raised five questions that needed to be answered in order for the Houston Dynamo to be positioned to contend for the MLS Cup. Two of those questions pertained to the back line: the first posed the question of who would start at center back, the second related to depth at fullback.

With a week to go until the start of the season, the answer to both of these questions remains a bit hazy as does the season outlook for this group of defenders. In part, this is due to the number of injuries in the back line this preseason; Jermaine Taylor, Kofi Sarkodie, Corey Ashe and Anthony Arena have all missed time. Another reason is due to the fact that simply nobody has stood out and separated themselves from the pack.

During most of the preseason the defense has looked as shaky as it did in 2013. Mistakes have gifted scoring opportunities to the opposition, forwards have been given far too much space in the center of the defense and the center backs have not contributed on set pieces. A bit of shakiness is to be expected at this stage given the injuries and the fact that the candidates for center back – David Horst, Eric Brunner, Anthony Area and AJ Cochran – are either rookies (Cochran) or played few minutes in 2013. Entering the season, though, this group needs to come together quickly.

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Three starters are known; Ashe, Taylor and Sarkodie. Brunner and Horst are in a battle for the final spot in the back four. In the last few matches, they have taken turns starting alongside Taylor and the others before jointly starting against Charleston Battery. Neither has capitalized on the opportunity as of yet. Both have had positive and negative moments. Each is a tall defender with some aerial skills but they have both had difficulty recovering at times when beaten or out of position. However, Brunner’s early departure from the Charleston match with injury may have made the opening day decision easier.

Nevertheless, I believe that even if Brunner is healthy on March 8th it will be Horst starting in the middle alongside Taylor. Where Brunner looks like a strong gust might blow him over (he is 6’4″ but weighs only 170 pounds), Horst is a physical beast. At 6’4” and 210 pounds, he is an aerial threat plus he has the physical strength to knock opponents off the ball. Most of all, Horst is a leader on the pitch. During the preseason, he could constantly be heard organizing the back line and the midfield support in front of it. This is something the Dynamo appeared to lack last season. After missing most of 2013 with injury, Horst needs time to fully regain form and blend in with his new teammates but I believe that by the end of the season, the trade for Horst will look like one of the best moves of the year.

Until Horst settles, the Dynamo need Jermaine Taylor to play more like the Taylor of 2012 than the one of 2013. Both of the starting fullbacks (Ashe and Sarkodie) like to get forward in attack which often leaves the back line exposed; particularly on the left side where Ashe often fails to get back in time or is out of position. Taylor is needed to clean up, especially when Ashe & Sarkodie going forward leave the Dynamo exposed to counter-attacks.

Both Ashe and Sarkodie add a dangerous component to the attack, however neither is in the upper echelon of MLS on the defensive side of the ball. Sarkodie is the better defender of the two, showing strong improvement last season, and has the potential to be considered in the national team pool. Perhaps the best thing the Dynamo can do early in the season to protect the middle is have Ashe and Sarkodie push forward a bit less than normal. I’d also like to see more caution against strong counter-attacking sides so as to avoid results like the 5-0 drubbing they received at the hands of Montreal Impact in August.

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During the preseason, we have seen several different players attempting to provide fullback depth: Arena, Mike Chabala, Euan Holden and even midfielder Brian Ownby have played at fullback. Holden and Chabala have been in competition to be the primary backup at left back and most likely for the final roster spot. With Holden being left out of the trip to Charleston, it would appear that Chabala has been declared the winner. Holden, brother of former Dynamo Stuart Holden, performed respectably but Chabala provides a bit more versatility (he played both right and left back during the preseason) and more experience. Neither offers much in the way of upside. Holden has spent the last several years in Europe, but has only played significant minutes in the English Conference National (5th level of the English pyramid), hardly a ringing endorsement.

In reality, if not for the salary cap limiting the funds teams can commit to on the back end of the roster, it is doubtful that either Holden or Chabala would be on an MLS roster. Chabala played only sparingly last season and that is unlikely to change this season. When Ownby played at right back he provided a threat going forward but was a liability on defense. It is doubtful we will see much of Ownby on defense this season. Arena played too seldom to make any assessment.

Apart from Brunner, the depth chart at center back includes Arena and Cochran. While Arena played very little in preseason, Cochran impressed. Like Horst, Cochran is physically imposing and shows strong aerial abilities. An argument could be made that Cochran was actually better than Horst and Brunner in the preseason, however it is unlikely that he will feature this season unless the Dynamo get desperate. It is rare that Dom Kinnear relies on rookies as starters. Expect either Arena or Cochran to go on loan to Pittsburgh for the season.

Conclusion: The Dynamo defense is a potential liability early in the season until it gels and Horst or someone else firmly establishes themselves as a starter. Depth at full back remains a concern; Sarkodie and Ashe both had to log far more minutes than would be ideal if the Dynamo are to keep them fresh. Sarkodie and Ashe offer a lot going forward but need to improve their recovery abilities. Lastly, the Dynamo need to get more out of the center backs on set pieces. The group has potential, but for now this is an area of concern.

Position Grade: C

Next up: a review of the midfield options.

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