Alberth Elis goal celebration-HOU-VAN-3.10.18

HOUSTON – The biggest move the Houston Dynamo made in the offseason was to preserve the status quo.


After Alberth Elis made a splash last season on loan from Monterrey, Houston permanently acquired the Honduran international and Designated Player in December. Ensuring he remains in Texas looks like one of the club’s shrewdest decisions as they seek another playoff berth in 2018.


“Definitely,” said head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who led his underdogs all the way to the Western Conference finals, where they lost to the Seattle Sounders. “What we’re trying to do – it’s our responsibility as a team – we want to show the whole league and the whole country that what we did last year wasn’t [luck].”


Elis is still in orange, still terrifying defenses with his pace and direct running, and still scoring, but there is one notable difference: he’s stepped up his generosity, in line with Cabrera’s emphasis on teamwork.


The 22-year-old has started all 10 of the Dynamo’s games and contributed five assists – one more than he mustered last year when he made 30 appearances, including the postseason. With six goals, he’s also on pace to score more than last year, when he found the net 10 times in the regular season and once in the playoffs.


Two came in the Dynamo’s 3-2 comeback road win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday: a coolly-taken penalty and a breakaway burst beyond the back line and self-assured finish for the match-winner.


It was no surprise to see him named in the MLS Team of the Week for Week 12, presented by Audi.


Perhaps it’s more eyebrow-raising that beyond Houston he’s rarely spoken about with the same awe reserved for other leading forwards, even if Elis is starting to put up the sort of numbers that, provided he stays hot and the Dynamo end as a top-six team in the Western Conference, might see him generate some buzz when the talk turns to the league MVP.


Hype him or don’t, the Dynamo are relaxed either way.


“Yeah, those stats are getting passed up on but at the end the day we notice it,” said midfielder Luis Gil, who agrees that Elis’ league-wide profile hasn’t yet caught up with his performances.


“To us that’s fine, and for him that’s fine, he knows what he’s doing and we know what he’s capable of,” Gil said.


Elis himself swatted the subject away.


“There is still a lot of games to be played,” he said through a translator. “What’s important is to help the team with goals and assists so we can make it to the playoffs.”


His coach agrees. “I don’t think we’re worried about recognition. I think we’re worried about the numbers and the team and being constant, and having a good level every game that can bring the team to the playoffs this year,” Cabrera said.


“We’re not worried about the team of the week or recognition from the media. I think it comes itself if we do well as a team and we continue being consistent.”


Back in March, Cabrera called on Elis to improve his finishing and the forward has responded. All told, combining goals and assists he’s been involved in almost half of the Dynamo’s 23 goals so far this term and will have a chance to add to his tally when the Dynamo host Eastern Conference powers New York City FC on Friday night (8:55 pm ET | UniMás, Twiter - full TV & streaming info).


“I wanted to improve what I did last year – I scored 11 goals and recorded four assists. I also want to help the team win a championship, that’s our collective goal. We were very close last year, and this year we are going to for it again,” he said.


“Since the season started I have felt more confident, this is my second year in the league and I know the league more, so that has helped me a lot.”


Feeling comfortable in MLS is especially important since defenses are now fully aware of the threat he carries. “I think the opponents know me better. I get two players trying to stop me, so I have to move more on the field, that way I can open up myself on the field more,” he said.


True to his “La Panterita” nickname, he’s known for his prowl celebration after scoring – a routine he took to the next level against Minnesota last year when he donned a Black Panther mask. In March he even hosted a screening of the film for 80 immigrant and refugee students.


Since there’s only been two games this year where he hasn’t contributed a goal, an assist, or both, it seems safe to predict he’ll be celebrating regularly into the summer – though whether he’ll keep riffing on the big cat theme is a mystery.


“Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t,” he said. “It depends on the moment.”