By Phil Luetchford (@luetchy10)
It was entirely predictable and avoidable. Houston fell flat on their face under the dreary command of Owen Coyle, collecting 11 points in 12 games. Under interim coach Wade Barrett, who wasn’t afraid to make big changes, there were glimpses of improvement. With Wilmer Cabrera taking the reins, and a number of intriguing South American signings, can Houston make the jump into the playoffs this season?
2016 in Review
It’s good that nobody remembers the 2016 Dynamo’s season, because boy were they uninspiring. As someone who watched multiple Houston games last year I’m still trying to recover.
The Texas Derby match in Week Two was the weirdest game in all of MLS last year. Houston had lost seven straight games to Dallas including two humiliating 1-4 losses at home in both 2014 and 2015. But this game was entirely different. Houston flew out to a 4-0 lead within 27 minutes on a goal and two assists from Andrew Wenger and a Dallas own goal. What is most confounding is that the own goal was an errant back pass from Matt Hedges, MLS Defender of the Year, and Dallas went on to win the Supporters’ Shield. The biggest accomplishment of the season for Houston was capturing El Capitán on the back of that stunning victory.
Unfortunately for the Dynamo, they were unable to recapture the lightning in a bottle that they experienced that night. Cristian Maidana suffered a concussion when Maynor Figueroa cleaned his clock and was never the same, falling well short of his 15 assists the year prior. Manager Owen Coyle left only three months into the season. Neither he nor his replacement Wade Barrett were able to sucessfully figure out how to get their most explosive players on the field at the same time.
Several players did step up in the second half of the season to lend some positivity for the future. The first and foremost of those was Mauro Manotas, who took Will Bruin’s job at center forward and ultimately led to Bruin being sent to the Sounders. Alex, named the Dynamo MVP and Players’ Player of the Year, played 2,500 minutes in central midfield and averaged 38.9 passes per game with an 80.8% pass completion percentage.
The rebuild started in late October when the Dynamo announced Wilmer Cabrera as head coach. Cabrera had been the coach of the Dynamo’s USL affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Toros, since their inception at the beginning of the year. You might remember him as Chivas USA’s coach in their last season, in which Cubo Torres bagged 15 goals in 29 games.
On the backline, the Dynamo lost Raul Rodriguez and David Horst, and sold Sheannon Williams, players who combined for over 6,000 minutes last season. To replace them, they acquired LA Galaxy stalwarts Leonardo and AJ DeLaGarza, and Panama veteran Adolfo Machado from Saprissa.
In the midfield they shipped out Cristian Maidana and Collen Warner was taken in the Expansion Draft, but they picked up Juan David Cabezas, a 25-year old central midfielder on loan from Deportivo Cali.
The most exciting changes were made on the offensive front. The Dynamo sold their second-leading scorer of all-time, Will Bruin, to the Sounders for GAM and TAM. It’s unfortunate that the deal was made before Don Garber changed his policy on revealing transaction amounts. They brought in Alberth Elis, an explosive forward/winger, on loan from Monterrey. Honduran international Romell Quioto arrives from Olimpia.
Has Joe Willis won the job or does Tyler Deric get another chance? With a new coach, the goalkeeper battle is wide open again. Tyler Deric conceded 4.75 goals fewer than would be expected based upon the shots he faced last season, but that was in only 818 minutes and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt. In 2015, he was just about even on Goals minus Expected Goals in nearly 3,000 minutes, similar to what Joe Willis was in 2016. It’s a tight race.
DaMarcus Beasley is the only returning starter on the backline. He turns 35 this May, but was still able to complete 37 passes a game last year along with 2.8 clearances and 2.6 tackles over 2,000 minutes. That’s very active for a fullback. At the other fullback position is A.J. DeLaGarza who similarly completed 40 passes a game over 2,000 minutes last year.
Adolfo Machado is 31 years old and has played 67 times for Panama. He will be partnered by Leonardo, who played 72 games for the Galaxy over four years. In 2015 when he was a full-time starter, he averaged a massive 5.3 interceptions and 5.3 clearances per game. He does have a reputation for being notoriously mistake-prone. The backline has capability and experience, although age is a double-edged sword in a long MLS season.
Ricardo Clark is ready to pass the mantle. Last season he played over 2,500 minutes at age 33. Now Juan David Cabezas is ready to take over the midfield patrol. He made his professional debut at 19 and has over 170 professional appearances in Colombia on his résumé. Alex will be the glue at the number eight, doing a little of everything.
Boniek Garcia will be the most advanced player in the midfield and be the main free kick taker. He takes less than a shot a game but provides 2 key passes each game on average. The lack of a true playmaker means that chance creation will still be a question mark.
The excitement for the Dynamo is on the forward line. Mauro Manotas broke through at the end of last season with six goals in only 1,000 minutes. Cabrera revealed that, “Right now, we don’t have a natural number 10 so that tells us that we have to change the formation to a 4-3-3.” Manotas played as a lone forward, but will now have speedy wingers to run alongside him.
One of those wingers is 21-year-old Alberth Elis. Elis played only 211 minutes for Monterrey last season but scored two goals on Honduras’ fourth-place Olympic team in the summer. He scored 25 goals for Olimpia over three years, including a goal in each leg versus the Sounders in CCL in 2015. Elis was signed as a Young Designated Player like Manotas.
On the other side of the 4-3-3 will be Elis’ teammate from Olimpia, Romell Quioto. Quioto is 25 years old and scored 38 goals for Olimpia in 96 appearances. They’ve already combined for a preseason goal against RGVFC. Quioto has four goals and 27 caps with the Honduras national team where he played alongside Boniek Garcia.
One of the most intriguing storylines of this offseason is the reconnection of Cubo Torres with the coach under which he was most successful. “I hope that will release pressure from him because he needs to be confident,” Cabrera said. “Because I know he’s a good player and he can score goals.”
Wilmer Cabrera was an assistant for Oscar Pareja in their two years at the Colorado Rapids. It is clear to see the connections. The Dynamo will be up-tempo with speed on the flanks. For his offseason signings, Cabrera opted for veterans at the back with youthful Central Americans in the front. Since Cabrera was the coach at Rio Grande Valley, he’ll have his eye on some of the homegrowns that is ready to feature for the senior side.
Have faith Houstonians! Under Wilmer Cabrera, the Houston Dynamo are once again ready to compete with the mid-table Western Conference teams. Houston won’t finish at the bottom of the West in 2017. They are most likely to finish as a team on the playoff bubble. I seem to be more optimistic than most, projecting the Dynamo to finish 5th in the West. Might that lead to a playoff matchup with Dallas? The Texas Derby might not be as bizarre as last year, but it will definitely be must-watch entertainment.