Houston Dynamo 2019 Season Preview / by Harrison Crow

Point-above-replacement values are explained here. Non-penalty expected goals + expected assists are explained here, and you can see all players’ xG+xA in our interactive expected goals tables. Touch percent is the percentage of total team touches by that player while he is on the field, which can be found in our interactive expected passing tables.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Last season was a year of ups and downs for the Dynamo; they won the US Open Cup but didn’t make the playoffs. They’ll be hoping that some key offseason additions get them back into the Western Conference race in 2019.

2018 in review

Last year was a disappointment for the Dynamo. 2017 was a year where Houston had a lot of young and exciting pieces come together in a mighty way and the organization was able to ride it much further than anyone reasonably expected, the Western Conference championship. All those young returning pieces brought excitement and promise to 2018.

A solid core of both young promising attackers with veteran defensive pieces who had the experience to help lead them towards that next logical step as an organization. Yet a series of woeful injuries, which lead to issues of depth, and inexperience caused the team to fall short of qualifying for the playoffs.

Not all was lost however, the team’s woes during the regular season allowed coach Wilmer Cabrera to prioritize US Open Cup and start impact players in important situations. While a knockout tournament is extremely difficult to navigate, the team and organization did a heck of a job working their way through it. It ended with them carrying home the US Open Cup trophy in September and earning entry to the CONCACAF Champions League this spring.

Taking home a trophy helps to lift the haze of a season long on anguish and disappointment. While the results and overall outcome were a disappointment, the trophy is an example and indication of small successful battles lead by the team.

Their attack ranked in the top-five of expected goals and helped fuel their differential which ended in the top-10. When comparing their peripherals to the rest of the field it’s hard to not be a bit surprised they didn’t perform better on the whole of the season.

In an alternate reality there is probably even a version of their 2017 season that ended with Houston finishing high enough for a playoff spot where a healthy squad even pushed the Dynamo towards the top of the Western Conference and a playoff bye. Instead they finished 11 points out of a playoff spot. But it wasn’t a disaster. All was not lost.

Roster Changes

Matt Jordan and the front office made a decision to go in a bit of a different direction this off-season parting ways with the likes of Aldolfo Machado, Philippe Sernderos, and Arturo Alvarez in favor of younger alternatives. Additionally, they cut ties with Leonardo and Luis Gil, who you may be surprised to learn had been on loan with the club the last six months. They traded Chris Seitz to DC United during the Super Draft and saw Eric Alexander head to Cincinnati via the Expansion Draft. The turnover wasn’t huge, but just enough to notice new impact faces around camp this pre-season.

 There are a lot of easy to make jokes about Luis Gil but he’s someone with plenty of skill and talent that just hasn’t even taken the steps forward that you would have guessed from his days of hype back at Real Salt Lake. He heads back to LigaMX after back-to-back MLS loans that have not gone well.

 Seitz will head to DC and will almost certainly be one of the best “number two” keepers in the league, but that’s kind of been his spot that last couple years. He’s someone that has shown a lot of potential but never really earned a full time gig. I had thought it was going to come in Houston but that never really happened. Houston received a draft pick in return and used it to select Andrew Samuels whom they hope eventually takes over the right back spot long term.

 As for Alexander, he’s someone that showed promise a few years ago but is on the downside of his career. Cincinnati will likely use him as cost effective depth that won’t hurt them if and when he gets on the field and it gives the Dynamo some wiggle room in the cap while adding a bit of general allocation money. Kind of a win-win for both teams.

Lastly, we saw the retirements of Dylan Remick (head injuries suck, man), Andrew Wenger, and Jared Watts. I’m kind of stunned about those last two. I had heard about what Remick’s head injury and it didn’t surprise me that he chose to leave the game. However Wenger and Watts have both found various levels of success over the last few seasons and it was a bit of a surprise to see them leave the game. It’s always good to see people making the right choices for themselves and their families but from a selfish fan perspective I feel a bit sad to see both of them end their career.

 New additions

It seems like the last few years Matt Jordan has done a quiet but somewhat effective job of adding quality pieces on a budget to this roster. Obviously people are probably a little bit more clued in with the trades of Tommy McNamara, Marlon Hairston, and Chris Duvall. But there are also the additions of Aljaž Struna and Matias Vera which they are hoping will take the quality of this starting eleven up another notch.

“Kiki” Struna is a 28-year old Slovenian international coming from Palmero and Serie B is a bit of a rough and tumble defender. He’s very likely a solid MLS defender.

Matias Vera coming via a transfer with San Lorenzo after a weird sign and loan situations with the Argentina club last year. He’s an interesting piece as he profiles like a number eight but with a bit of bite defensively. This isn’t a huge surprise as even the elected number ten of the attack, Tomas Martinez, is expected to be a bit of a two way player. Adding an individual who is skilled in playing quick passes in possession as well as has the athletic ability to cover solid ground isn’t a small thing, especially with how frail that midfield looked at times last season.

Tommy Mac has been a bit of a thing among those on the social media platforms. He’s shown flair and the ability to score goals but has yet to be really given an opportunity to consistently ply his trade through regular minutes. The problem is that through inconsistent minutes there isn’t much there from an underlying or advanced metric perspective. He is a bit more flash and bit less substance.

I have suspicions MacNamara will find himself with about 500-1,000 minutes this season, an increase from last while serving as a first in attacking sub and capable back-up to Martinez and possibly either winger if needed.

However, I’m not sure how many minutes will be available on the wing. The addition of Marlon Hairston was possibly thought to improve their full back situation but instead he’s been used exclusively in an attacking role through the pre-season and he should be another handy attacking pieces that will come on late in games, help stretch the field and put pressure on defenses.

Hairston is just a year removed from his USMNT camp cupcake call-in, and is an interesting player but one who is running out of runway and very quickly could transition from “he has some interesting potential” to “this is probably who he is.” If Alberth Elis gets a move this summer, Hairston could very quickly find himself in an ideal situation, but only if he somehow takes that step forward.

Roster Outlook

Goalkeepers

The starting keeper position is kind of down to either Joe Willis or Tyler Deric. The organization has catered towards Deric in the past and while Willis held the job for a large part of last year it’s probably still Deric’s job to lose. Despite that, Willis is a starting caliber keeper in MLS.

Centerbacks

Central defense has been a precarious position for Houston over the last few years. Really, in a lot of ways, it’s been a sore spot since Bobby Boswell left in 2014 and five years later it doesn’t really look very much better. Adding Struna is without a doubt the biggest addition of the off-season but I’m not really sure as to his quality and by himself he isn’t going to make things much better. He’ll without a doubt improve things, but the team needs Fuenmayor to take a step forward defensively and cut down on the amount of mental mistakes.

Maynor Figureroa should also up the bar with his veteran presence, but he too isn’t going to really fix things. He’s a solid defensive player and a move from left back into the center is probably something that’s been coming for a while. But while he’s been solid down that left side, I’m not sure I believe in his ability to handle the more athletic attackers. At 35 it has to be asked, how much does he have in the tank? They may end up depending on Kevin Garcia who will be  the 4th CB.

I’d be a bit remiss in this if I didn’t mention homegrown Erik McCue. They seem very excited about him and his potential, but he just turned 18 and I honestly am not sure he’s ready for more than an emergency start. I tend to think he’ll spend more time down at Rio Grande Valley.

This is, without a doubt, the weakest aspect of Houston’s roster and while I give Matt Jordan some credit for the moves he’s made over the last couple of years, I have to wonder when he’s going to give this position some serious attention.

Fullbacks

Speaking of attention, the team desperately needed help on the right flank. Despite their flurry of moves and the general squad improvement, I’m not sure they have a starting caliber one. Number one on the depth charts appears to be A.J. DeLaGarza, who was injured the majority of last year and had all of 360 minutes on the field. His injuries last year and his age (31) does lead to questions about his viability to remain an outside back and, considering the present depth, if he doesn’t profile better at centerback at this stage of his career.

 The alternate option is Chris Duvall. Duvall was traded from Montreal this past off-season and has long been a favorite of mine simply because I adore speedy full backs who have a propensity to get forward, overlap, and cut into the box. But he can be a defensive liability too, and ran out of rope in Montreal due to his tardiness in tracking back once he gets forward.

A (very) dark horse candidate could also be Superdraft pick-up Andrew Samuels from the University of Maryland. The team seems particularly keen on 21-year old, especially considering they traded Seitz to get him in the Superdraft. He’s still very green and has more than a few edges of his game to round out.

Over on the other side of the field, the left back position will most likely be fielded once more by the forever young DaMarcus Beasley, returning for his 20th season in professional soccer. Beasley has been perhaps one of the better left backs in MLS the last couple of years and despite turning 36 still isn’t really slowing down. Of course he’s lost a step or two since his days of being dynamic attacker and he’s absolutely prone to an injury or two during the season, but he’s countered those with really learning the position and understanding when to pick his times to burst forward.

Beasley will be backed up by swede Adam Lundkvist who will look to get about 1000-1500 minutes if you include US Open Cup and CCL games, and the occasional Beasley injury and resting periods that will inevitably occur during the season.

Wide Midfielders

The Houston Dynamo boast the best winger duo in MLS with Romell Quioto on the left and Alberth Elis on the right. Quioto’s possibly one of the most complete wingers in the league with his ability to use his speed to beat opponents one-v-one while maintaining the ability to carve up defenses with his creative passing ability. That said, he certainly can and will create shots on his own, too.

Elis, on the other side of the field, is probably one of the most enigmatic player's in Major League Soccer. He was scoring goals at will to start the 2017 season and for a while was even on a pace to shatter the single season non-penalty goals record. However, while he slowed down as the season progressed, the underlying numbers remained impressive.

Elis has the ability to beat any player in MLS and his top speed is perhaps among the very elite this league has. He’s the best consistent shot creator from the wing in MLS, and he still has the potential to get better, not to mention to see those advanced numbers become reality.

The additions of Marlon Hairston and the continued growth of Memo Rodriguez provide solid depth to both of these positions, as Wilmer Crabera will need it with the US Open Cup and pending international call-ups that will happen.

Central Midfielders

Juan David Cabezas was one of the biggest holes for Houston’s starting line-up in 2018. his tenacious defensive approach and wily passing ability on the counter made him one of the most underrated defensive midfielders in the league in 2017, so they’re glad to have him back in 2019. His injury just fifteen minutes into the 2018 season was tragic, but so was his recovery timeline which saw delay after delay.

Cabezas looks to be paired with Matias Vera and gives the team a second strong and defensive midfielder, which will assuredly help with covering ground in the defensive third and free up Tomas Martinez to possibly play a bit more of a free creative attacking role. Their depth consists of veterans Darwin Ceren and Oscar Boniek Garcia in addition to adding Tommy MacNamara to the fold.

Forwards

Houston boasts one of the best young forward options in the league, Mauro Manotas. The young Colombian has done a lot over the last two years to earn the spot and is now starting to attract interest from teams abroad. It would probably behoove the cash strapped team to sell high on Manotas sooner rather than later, but his high level combination of skill and potential make him a difficult to piece to see go.

He’s an extremely effective scorer and being surrounded by the likes of Martinez, Elis and Quioto only amplifies his talent. The real question for Houston over the last 12 months has been what to do when Manotas isn’t available. The answer has often been to shift either Quioto or Elis out of their most effective spaces to place them further up the pitch.

The addition of Ronaldo Peña at mid-season last year wasn’t a huge acquisition, but it finally gave the team a potentially solid alternative option behind Manotas and, depending on how he continues to perform, may give Jordan and the front office flexibility at the bargaining table in dealing with some of the interested clubs that will be calling for Manotas this summer.

Tactics/Style

Wilmer Cabrera’s approach over the last couple of years has been to clog the middle of the park through compact defensive posture, invite pressure, and make it difficult to be broken down in the final third while limiting the number of shots against them. They create attacking opportunities through winning position in the defensive half and catching the opposition out of position on fast breaks. They generally push the ball wide behind the full backs and Elis and Quioto cut in on the wings for high quality shot opportunities inside the 18 yard box.

2019 Expectations

The front office has certainly added needed depth and replaced outgoing figures with younger and potentially higher quality players. But there are plenty of question marks still within the team and they are still at least one defensive piece from distinguishing themselves from the pack.

The ceiling for the 2019 Dynamo is pretty high, but they’re in a tier with a lot of similar teams. I’d be flabbergasted if they don’t compete for a playoff spot and I’m quite sure, short of another devastating injury to a key player, they will.

Cabrera’s style, which compacts the defensive third and makes getting good looks difficult, should help minimize the amount of goals conceded. If this attack is 90% of what they were last year, the playoffs is just one in a series of expectations this organization should have. But they’ve been mistake prone on defense and they didn’t do too much to really upgrade those positions.

Having a full year of Cabezas will be a massive boon for this team but if they really want to be in that next tier with Seattle, LAFC and SKC, those guys in the back line have to take a step forward.