The Houston Dynamo made an impressive run late in the 2011 season that lasted all the way to MLS Cup, but it may be a bit difficult for the club to immediately carry that success over into the new year.
With a new stadium set to open later in the season, Houston will start its campaign with seven road games before settling into BBVA Compass Stadium on May 12. The Dynamo were subpar away from home last year, posting a 2-6-9 record on their travels. It was the worst road record of any team to make the postseason.
"Coming out of the first few games with a few points is really crucial for us," said Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. "We need to be better on the road than last year."
If the Dynamo can position themselves favorably through that initial road spell, Kinnear's men could be poised for a big second half of the season that is loaded with home games.
One thing Houston could struggle with during the season is a consistent scorer.
While the Dynamo got goals from numerous sources last year, no player lit up the scoring charts to put fear in the opposition's eyes. Four Houston players finished the regular season tied on five goals apiece, and two of them (Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron) were defenders who came up on set pieces.
After a long transfer saga where he was selected in the MLS Expansion Draft only to be traded back to the Dynamo in exchange for a conditional draft pick, Brian Ching will need to shoulder the bulk of the scoring responsibilities.
Houston will also look to second-year striker Will Bruin to take the next step in his career after notching five goals in his rookie year, and also count on Macoumba Kandji, who was picked up from the Colorado Rapids, to produce.
Brad Davis, like he was last season, is likely to be the star of this team in 2012.
Davis completed the regular season with 16 assists, the most in all of MLS, and has amassed 40 helpers over the past three seasons. It will be up to Davis to continue to provide spot-on delivery in dead-ball situations if the Dynamo wish to stay on their upward trend.
The biggest worry for the club is the question surrounding the depth of the squad.
By reaching MLS Cup last season, the Dynamo will compete in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2012. With the addition of midweek clashes in Central America, the travel and denser fixture list could prove to be much.
2011 IN REVIEW: Houston finished the regular season strong, winning four of its last five to climb to second place in the East with 49 points. That form carried over into the postseason as the Dynamo edged the Philadelphia Union in the opening round and upset Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference Final to reach MLS Cup, where it lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
ACQUISITIONS: Macoumba Kandji (F), Erich Marscheider (GK), Colin Rolfe (F), Nathan Sturgis (M).
LOSSES: Francisco Navas Cobo (M), Carlo Costly (F), Danny Cruz (M), Jason Garey (F), Hunter Freeman (D), Evan Newton (GK), Eddie Robinson (D).
OUTLOOK: The 2012 season is difficult to predict for Houston. The seven-game road start does not help its cause, but if it can emerge from that stretch unscathed, then it could be poised for a strong finish. It has become a trend in MLS for new stadiums to become fortresses, and it would be brave to expect anything less in Houston as the Dynamo are likely to raise their level of play once BBVA Compass Stadium opens in May (much like Sporting Kansas City last season). The increased travel and higher number of matches will be the biggest obstacles for Houston, and the club may not be able to overcome those hurdles.