Is a sleeping giant beginning to wake up?
Houston Dynamo FC have long been viewed as a "sleeping giant" in MLS, given the population of the city, the downtown location of PNC Stadium and the multicultural demographics of the Texan city, particularly their Mexican-American base. Hell, new managing owner Ted Segal used the phrase numerous times when he officially took the reigns at the Dynamo (and NWSL's Dash) over the summer.
After several moves this winter in the right direction – both off and on the field – the Dynamo took a huge swing to change the narrative and the culture around their club, previously critiqued for its low spending. On Wednesday, Houston announced the signing of Atletico Madrid and Mexico international midfielder Hector Herrera to a pre-contract, with the 31-year-old joining the Dynamo in the summer after his contract in Spain's La Liga expires.
General manager Pat Onstad minced no words when speaking about the club's (soon-to-be) new Designated Player.
“It’s the biggest signing in our club history, and I don’t think anyone is close," Onstad told media during a virtual press conference. "It’s a turning point in the franchise. We put a marker down. We believe this is going to transform our organization again and put us back at the top.”
"It’s a huge signing"
Herrera joined Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019 from FC Porto and has made more than 70 appearances under manager Diego Simeone, winning the 2020-21 La Liga title, though hasn't been a consistent starter this year. He moved from Pachuca to Porto in the summer of 2013 and made 245 appearances with the Portuguese giants before joining Atletico. He won a Portuguese league title in 2017-18.
He's also earned 93 appearances with El Tri, highlighted by appearances at the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cups, as well as a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
“Just look at his résumé and where he’s been the last 10 years," head coach Paulo Nagamura said. "He’s been playing in the Champions League, the captain of the Mexico national team. It stands by itself; it’s a huge signing for the club. We’ve been talking about how we want to change the future of the club. Getting high-caliber players is what we want to do.”
A move to acquire Herrera has been in the works for some months.
The Dynamo identified him as a potential target and then exploratory talks showed there was some mutual interest and a real chance of getting a deal done. Days after agreeing on budgets and total spending for the offseason with Segal, Onstad went back to the managing owner to say if we want Herrera, it might cost more. Without hesitation, Segal obliged.
Talks got serious and after an offer was made, Onstad flew to Spain to watch Herrera in the Champions League against Manchester United. It was Herrera's first start of the Champions League season, too. During the trip, Onstad met with Herrera to help seal the deal.
“We just talked through the project," Onstad said. "Where I see the team going, what we’re trying to build. … We talked through the style of play that Paulo wants to implement. Ted Segal was part of the process, [technical director] Asher [Mendelsohn] was part of the process. Herrera said we sounded very aligned and it was a project he wanted to be a part of.”
"This was a perfect fit for him"
After the deal got announced Wednesday, the midfielder didn't want to partake in any press conferences or videos, as he wanted undivided focus on finishing Atleti's season. That decision, Nagamura and Onstad say, underscores the level of professionalism and commitment fans can expect when he arrives.
“I don’t think he’s the kind of guy we need to treat any differently," Nagamura said. "He’s very humble and has a fantastic mentality. He’s shown that in the past 10 years playing at the top clubs in Europe. That won’t be an issue.”
“He’s a guy that has won everywhere he’s played," Onstad added. "The national team, Porto, Madrid. He’s a fantastic player and great human being. He ticks every single box. This is a massive signing.”
The move is a huge swing for the Dynamo in looking to regain relevancy, not only across MLS but in their own market.
This winter marks the first offseason of their new era and things are trending upwards. Before Herrera, Paraguayan forward Sebastian Ferreira was signed to a DP deal as well. Herrera will be the third DP, though Zimbabwean defender Teenage Hadebe can be bought down.
They're still looking for another addition (at least) and talks remain active to sign Brazilian 20-year-old winger Thiago "Thiaguinho" Fernandes from Flamengo, per sources, but other clubs are working to sign him as well, meaning the deal isn't done yet. Sources also added rumors of Houston signing El Tri and Real Betis winger Diego Lainez are false.
“We can kind of use a sports analogy, which I don’t like using, but it’s a little bit like signing a Wayne Gretzky to a certain extent, to a notoriety standpoint in the soccer community. … This was a perfect fit for him in Houston," Onstad, a former Canadian international, said. "The timing for our club, he’s got an opportunity to help us build what we want to build and become a contender again.”