Houston, we might have a problem

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

MLS Features Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear felt comfortable trading two-time MLS Cup MVP Dwayne De Rosario following the 2008 season because he was confident Stuart Holden was ready to fill his shoes.

Although Holden was just 23 last offseason, he showed promise during the 2008 season, and had defensive midfielder Ricardo Clark as a safety net.

Houston did get off to a sluggish start, and Kinnear admitted last season the "questions were all around Stuart."

"I knew there was going to be more pressure on me to put up more numbers, and people were kind of doubting the Dwayne trade ... at first," Holden said.

Holden quickly proved why Kinnear handed him the play-making midfield role. He finished second on the Dynamo with six goals, and also chipped in four assists. De Rosario, who was the heart of Houston's 2006 and 2007 MLS titles, was soon forgotten.

Stuart Holden
Stuart Holden signed with Bolton in England's Premier League.
The Dynamo finished tied with the Los Angeles Galaxy for the top spot in the Western Conference on points, but finished second, the same place it was at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Houston was first in 2008.

Problem is, now Houston and Kinnear have to forget about Holden - and Clark - as well.

Houston opens preseason training camp Monday and, for the first time in years, Kinnear has major concerns in midfield. De Rosario is now the anchor for Toronto FC, and Holden and Clark both seized opportunities after their contracts expired to move to Europe in the last two weeks. Clark was the first to depart, signing with Eintracht in Germany's top flight on Jan. 21. Holden followed five days later, signing with Bolton in England's Premier League on Tuesday.

"The Premier League is one of the best leagues in the world and I was really excited when this opportunity came up," said Holden, who had a brief spell in England with Sunderland in 2005 but never played for the team.

De Rosario, who turned 31 last season, was a little easier to part with. But, Holden is just 24 and Clark 26. Kinnear could do little to hold onto the pair as they continued to play well in MLS, and earned bigger roles with the U.S.

Kinnear has had both since Houston's first season in the league in 2006 - the original San Jose Earthquakes franchise moved to Texas after the 2005 season. Clark appeared 97 times over the last four years, and Holden played 88 games. Both signed contracts through the end of the current European seasons in the Bundesliga and EPL, respectively.

Although it's possible they could return to Houston in the middle of this MLS season, that's not the plan for either as they try to secure spots on the U.S. for this summer's World Cup.

"Any athlete in our sport who thinks he can make it in Europe, you want him to have that attitude," Dynamo president Oliver Luck told the Houston Chronicle.

So, Kinnear has to come up with another plan. Although he has options, it will not be easy to replace the pair. Clark was one of the top players in MLS (just underappreciated in defensive midfield), and Holden was quickly following that path, emerging as one of the league's elite attacking midfielders.

Geoff Cameron and Brad Davis are the top options to move to central midfield - although neither played there last season. Cameron played 29 times last season in defense, while Davis had five goals and 12 assists in 27 matches in another midfield role. But if Houston turns to those two in central midfield, it leaves a spot in the back at central defender open where Cameron used to roam, and outside midfield where Davis used to patrol both in doubt.

Corey Ashe played 27 games last year for Kinnear, 14 off the bench, and likely finds a role somewhere. Kinnear acquired midfielder Kevin Harmse, who could be used in defense, in a trade with Chivas USA just after Clark joined Eintracht.

Defender/midfielder Richard Mulrooney, who played in 14 games last season, and defender Eddie Robinson, who missed all but one game with a knee injury a year ago, were re-signed the day Holden signed with Bolton.

Kinnear didn't want to be left without plenty of possibilities.

With Holden and Clark gone, the biggest piece remaining is U.S. forward Brian Ching. He will be under more pressure to produce this season and it will be a lot tougher if Kinnear doesn't reconstruct another strong midfield.

If he can't, Houston will have problems in the upcoming season.

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Brian Westfall
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