It's a winter of change for Houston Dynamo FC, undergoing a complete organizational shift in pursuit of an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs return.
It's the club's first offseason under the direction of managing owner Ted Segal, who appointed a new general manager in former fan favorite and MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper Pat Onstad last year. Onstad oversaw further change when he named Paulo Nagamura as his first full-time head coach.
Those changes may have suggested a complete roster teardown was incoming. But while the Dynamo have been busy acquiring pieces, it's not a dramatic rebuild just yet.
Sebastian Ferreira is the new regime's early crown jewel so far, with the Paraguayan forward joining in a club-record deal last month from Libertad. MLS veterans Steve Clark and Daniel Steres arrived and were joined by Brazilian fullback Zeca on Thursday.
How Zeca fits
Zeca is a player Houston technical director Asher Mendelsohn and Onstad had a history tracking during their time with the Columbus Crew.
“We were tracking Zeca for a long time in Columbus," Mendelsohn told MLSsoccer.com. "We went down to Sao Paulo and had a chance to sit down with him, he was interested in MLS. We were very close to getting something done, but the coach of Santos changed. He was starting a week later and then the next thing you know, he’s winning a gold medal at the Olympics. He’s one we’ve always kept an eye on.”
Zeca started the 2016 Summer Olympics men’s soccer final for Brazil against Germany. Global stars like Paris Saint-Germain duo Neymar and Marquinhos, as well as Bayern Munich tandem Niklas Sule and Serge Gnabry, were among the starters that day as Brazil prevailed in penalty kicks.
Houston plan to use the 27-year-old fullback more on the right, though he's comfortable on either side and has made more appearances on the left over the course of his career. He is valued by the club for his attacking ability and fit in a possession-based side, which the Dynamo aim to be under Nagamura.
So far, the Olympics and his club career around that time have been Zeca's peak. In addition to the Brazil U-23s (the Olympics are a U-23 tournament in men's soccer), he was starting for Brazilian Serie A giants and Copa Libertadores regulars Santos.
Since then, his playing time at Santos waned before an eventual move to Vasco da Gama in Brazil's second tier.
Overall, Zeca has 131 Serie A appearances and another 29 in Serie B.
“If a guy doesn’t end up starting in Brazil, does that mean he’s a failure? It’s funny, Brazil has so much talent,” Mendelsohn said. “There’s always another young player coming and there’s so much coaching turnover. Saying a guy doesn’t make it in Brazil is like saying a guy didn’t make it as a point guard in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he’s done playing professional basketball or can’t play at a high level. Brazil tends to be an inefficient market ... in a good way because they have so many good players.”
The Dynamo are focusing on Brazil and South America as a whole. Houston is a city with deep ties to Central and South America, and MLS is a key market for Central and South American talent. Nagamura is Brazilian and a Portuguese speaker, which helps in recruitment as well.
"Brazil is a very interesting market for us, we think there’s a lot of quality there,” Mendelsohn said. "We think it translates very well to our city and our staff. It’s a place we’re actively looking. It’s a pathway that makes a lot of sense for us. … We’ll continue to focus our time and resources in South America.”
What next for Houston?
Houston have been linked with Brazilian midfielder Tche Tche, though MLSsoccer.com sources have downplayed the club's interest. The Dynamo are, however, looking to use their roster flexibility to bring in a central midfielder.
The Dynamo currently have Ferreira and Teenage Hadebe as DPs, though Hadebe could be bought down. They have two open U22 Initiative slots as well; Mateo Bajamich still counts on the spot despite being loaned out to Huracan. (A player has to be U22 Initiative for two seasons minimum unless they are transferred, not loaned.)
“We’re looking for a central midfielder and a winger. We’re looking at a few different ways to profile that: Which is a U22 Initiative, which is a DP?” Mendelsohn said. “So we’re juggling that. What I can say, our owner Ted Segal has been fantastic. Pat talks to him every day, he’s asking how negotiations are going, what else we need. The resources are fantastic.”
Flexibility, though, is important.
If the Dynamo sign two U22 Initiative players this window, they’ll be set for all of 2022 and with two spots occupied for 2023. The purchase option for on-loan midfielder Adalberto “Coco” Carrasquilla could push him into the DP territory (though he would be eligible to be bought down, pending the cap gymnastics).
“But we’re trying to be careful. We have a brand new head coach and a new style of play, a new identity," Mendelsohn said. “We don’t have a lot of roster space or cap space, some of those things were immovable when we got here. We want to be careful that we don’t try to do too much in the first eight weeks that we’re here. There’s a certain amount of information we want to gather about our group so we know exactly what we need.”