Every year that Hair Balls does a season preview on the Houston Dynamo, footy aficionados always complain and moan about the same things: why didn't the front office bring in a star player, is this team aging before our eyes, blah, blah, blah.
For starters, the average age on the Dynamo for 2014 is 25 years old. As for the lack of star players - the Dynamo will tell you they play more as a team.
Generally speaking, you have to give the club the benefit of the doubt since the Dynamo have appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the past three seasons.
But the club will also be the first to tell you that that was then, and this is now.
The Dynamo gear up for an opening match this Saturday when they take on the upstart New England Revolution (7:30 pm, BBVA Compass Stadium). To get you ready for the season, we've broken down the Dynamo's 2014 outlook to five points.
5. Twenty-five percent new look defense
Pundits point to the defense as possibly the Dynamo's weakest area; which is weird to think of the Dynamo having a porous defense. In 2013, the Dynamo defense allowed 41 goals - which is the same amount of goals they allowed in 2012, when they went undefeated at home.
The defensive back four remain most intact, except for the loss of Bobby Boswell in central defense. Expected to replace him are Eric Brunner, David Horst, or rookie AJ Cochran. Whoever fills his shoes in 2014 (Brunner will be out against the Revs with an ankle injury) will have plenty of guidance from goalkeeper Tally Hall and defensive partner Jermaine Taylor.
"It's only one guy missing, and its Bobby Boswell," Taylor said. "We still got Corey [Ashe], we still got Kofi [Sarkodie]; all [the defense] needs is good communication and we can work from there easily."
4. Attacking soccer in Houston
Maybe it's not the FC Barcelonaesque "tiki-taka" style of soccer, or the Dutch 4-3-3 formation that has propelled Sporting KC or Real Salt Lake - but the Dynamo do have the attacking options to create some noise in 2014.
A staple of a Dominic Kinnear offense will always be the wide play, and the Dynamo have two of the best in MLS in Brad Davis and Boneik Garcia. Once either of those two swing the ball in, the choices at forward for Kinnear are some of the best he's had in a while. Will Bruin and Giles Barnes were his top choices in 2013, but they could find themselves on the bench in favor of Omar Cummings, Jason Johnson, rookie Mark Sherrod, or homegrown signee Bryan Salazar.
"You're gonna have to be on your toes if you want to keep your spot, Barnes told Hair Balls. "But it's a team game. It's a marathon not a sprint; so everyone is going to be needed at some stage of the season."
3. The 2014 FIFA World Cup?
The World Cup doesn't officially kick off until June 12. Of course, no spot is currently guaranteed for any player. Any player that would leave for the tournament would go to begin training with their national teams in mid May, meaning they could miss upward of 6 to 7 regular season games for the Dynamo.
If you had to name one Dynamo player who was Brazil-bound, it would be Garcia with Honduras. He's been a staple for the Catrachos this current cycle, and should be a lock.
Davis and Hall were with the US Men's National team during their January camp in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Unfortunately for Hall, the goalkeeper is the USMNT's deepest position, and he's yet to suit up for the Nats.
Davis is a fringe player who needs a strong start to the 2014 MLS season to have a hope for Brazil. Luckily for him, the European-based players for the USMNT performed horribly in their 2-0 loss to Ukraine last Monday. The MLS-based players will get their last opportunity to impress Jurgen Klinsmann in a "friendly" against Mexico on April 2 in Phoenix. Davis has three matches in March to earn a coveted call-up for that friendly.
There are a couple of other guys who could get a call-up. Alex Lopez suited up for Honduras during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but hasn't seen much action with the senior team since. Ashe, Bruin, and Ricardo Clark have all been called up by Klinsmann in the past. Although their inclusion this late in the game is highly unlikely, again, strong starts in 2014 could catch Klinsmann's eye - especially Ashe were the US has struggled with their left back situation.
2. Breakout players to watch
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If multiple guys miss time due to World Cup call-ups, or injuries occur, Servando Carrasco and Tony Cascio looked good in attacking from the midfield during preseason.
Injuries prevented Horst and Cummings from contributing much in 2013. Now healthy and match fit, both players look to make immediate impacts in 2014.
1. Where they'll finish
Probably somewhere as the fourth or fifth seed - it's what they do. The Eastern Conference - on paper - looks to be more formidable this year. That shouldn't keep this team from reaching the playoffs, but rather keep them in line with where they've finished the past two three seasons. What you can expect is that they'll be the playoff team that nobody wants to face.