Since moving to Houston from San Jose in 2006, the Dynamo has won two MLS Cups and never finished worse than second in the Western Conference. Coach Dominic Kinnear has proved to be a shrewd judge of talent, and veterans such as goalkeeper Pat Onstad, midfielder Brad Davis and forward Brian Ching have smoothed the transitions of newcomers. But in a 2010 MLS season marked by disorder—a players' strike narrowly averted, a World Cup that will put the league on a two-week hiatus in June and divert fan and media attention—even the most dependable team cannot avoid the tumult. The off-season departure of central midfielders Stuart Holden (to Bolton Wanderers in England) and Ricardo Clark (to Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany) left Houston with a hole in the center of its 4-4-2 formation that would doom most teams.
"We've had to make changes before, but it's a little different this year because we lost not one but two important players," Kinnear says. "We'll just have to adjust as we go."
Houston won't be alone in dealing with change. The Galaxy, who'll be without the injured David Beckham for much (if not all) of the season and will lose Landon Donovan for at least six weeks to World Cup duty, will be working in three Brazilian newcomers and the aging Clint Mathis. Chivas USA has its own midfield to rebuild, while its former coach Preki starts over with underachieving Toronto FC. The Red Bulls have a new coach in European veteran Hans Backe and an impressive new stadium, but the lineup is unproven. D.C. United, after consecutive seasons missing the playoffs, hired former Wizards coach Curt Onalfo in hopes of restoring the franchise's lost luster. The league has brighter story lines—the debut of the expansion Philadelphia Union, the second season of the wildly successful Sounders—but the established teams are notably unsettled.
Kinnear, always sanguine, doesn't consider the Dynamo in a state of flux, and his optimism derives from the way his squad responded last season after two-time MLS Cup MVP Dwayne De Rosario was traded to Toronto. But Holden had been groomed for years to replace De Rosario in the attacking midfield spot, with Clark behind him. This year the line of succession is muddled.
Of the candidates to fill Holden's spot, the most intriguing is Geoff Cameron, an MLS Best XI pick last season at centerback. It's an unusual switch—from central defender to attacking midfielder—but the 6'3" Cameron played all over the field last season (even at forward), and Kinnear has high hopes for him.
"He can have a good, productive season in [the midfield] if he just lets things come to him," Kinnear says. "He has to not try to make things happen, to have some patience."
That's good advice for MLS followers all around.
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Look for the Sounders, phenoms in '09, to go all the way this year, behind cagey vet Kasey Keller(below), rising star Fredy Montero and savvy coach Sigi Schmid. Here's SI's 2010 predicted order of finish and MLS Cup call.
2. New England
4. New York
5. Kansas City
6. D.C. United
2. Los Angeles
3. Real Salt Lake
6. Chivas USA
8. San Jose
Seattle over Chicago
GEORGE FREY/GETTY IMAGES (CAMERON)
MOVIN' UP? With two mainstays from 2009 now overseas, Cameron (20) may have to shift from centerback to A-mid.
VICTOR DECOLONGON/GETTY IMAGES (KELLER)