It’s starting to feel like Adalberto Carrasquilla is everywhere.
In Panama, the local TV rights for the US Open Cup were snapped up during the knockout stages, with next week’s final between Houston Dynamo FC and Inter Miami CF branded as "Messi vs. Coco," the latter being the nickname Carrasquilla is often called. After all, this is the country’s top player at the moment.
In Houston, where he plays club ball, his curly mane of hair bobs all over the field, helping set up goals like the team move the Dynamo put together to open the scoring Saturday in a 1-1 draw against Western Conference-leading St. Louis CITY SC.
You won’t stop seeing Carrasquilla any time soon, either. At 24, he’s stepping into a bigger role both with the Dynamo and with Panama, becoming the face of a national team after a generation of MLS vets like Blas Perez, Roman Torres and Gabriel Gomez bid farewell.
“I’m not the type of person who likes to always be called the best,” he said in a phone interview with MLSsoccer.com.
“Personally, I just want to give my best, so it surprised me a bit when I went in with the national team and noticed a change, maybe being called a star. I’m thankful, but I don’t see myself as a star with the national team or with the Houston Dynamo.”
Rise and grind
The midfielder says it’s not his job to accept a star role, but the media and fans can label him one if that’s how they see it. And, in that case, yes: Coco Carasquilla is a star, whether he wants to be or not.
He does want to improve, to take on bigger roles with both club and country. That’s why, before the summer that saw Panama compete in the Concacaf Nations League Finals (a four-team single-elimination event) and the Gold Cup, he hired a trainer to help him with strength work, following up on the extra work he put in during the offseason.
“I think ultimately they put you in a rhythm,” he said of working with specialists. “You get a reward for all that effort you put in. It’s been a lot of work.”
It didn’t go unnoticed, and Carrasquilla took on a bigger role than ever for Panama in the Gold Cup. The versatile midfielder earned the tournament’s Best Player award, converting the final penalty in an upset shootout win over the US men's national team in the semifinals before the Central American squad fell just short of their first-ever Concacaf title on a 1-0 loss to Mexico in the final.
“We saw he’d put on some muscle mass, and that helped him compete better,” Panama manager Thomas Christiansen said ahead of Concacaf Nations League games with Martinique, a win, and at Guatemala, a draw.
“It’s always better if a player can adapt to different systems, different demands put on them on the field of play. With us, Carrasquilla has played as a double pivot, sometimes he’s had to come get the ball, other times we give him the freedom to attack and he gets into the box with Houston too."
That diverse skill set is one of Carrasquilla's biggest strengths, having played multiple roles in Houston's breakout 2023 season as well. With the national team, he'll hope his ever-growing toolbox can guide the team to its second-ever FIFA World Cup appearance – a goal well within reach given the tournament's expanded field of 48, which allows for three additional Concacaf qualifiers outside of the US, Mexico and Canada, who all received automatic bids as host nations.
While Carrasquilla has become one of the faces of both the resurgent Dynamo and his national team, he’ll take a back seat to the big names of his opponents in the US Open Cup final on Sept. 27. Houston travel to face an Inter Miami team that will deploy Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and a cohort of rising stars around them.
“After you don’t win a final, you regret some things a lot of the time. Now, I have the opportunity to play another one,” Carrasquilla said, referencing Panama's heartbreaking Gold Cup exit. “We know about Miami, the players they have, and that just gives it even more meaning – and makes it that much more difficult – to win the tournament. It would be great to win it after putting in so much effort.
"It’d put us in a better light in the league and also in a better spot in the region to compete in Concacaf Champions Cup. That’s important for the club to keep growing."
That other tournament mentioned – 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup – is one Houston have already qualified for thanks to reaching the US Open Cup final. (Since Inter Miami already secured their berth to the continental tournament via their League Cup championship, the Dynamo are guaranteed the one USOC bid regardless of next Wednesday's result.)
The club's rise from perennial Western Conference basement dwellers, who haven't made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs since 2017, to potential regional powerhouse has mirrored Carrasquilla's own meteoric takeoff.
Visions of Europe
And though Carrasquilla's star could be eclipsed during the pre-match build-up for the final by Miami's flashy roster, it’s safe to say he'll keep getting attention not just in Panama and in MLS circles, but abroad as well. The Tauro FC alumnus joined the Dynamo from Cartagena FC in Spain in 2021, but played only in the country's lower divisions. Carrasquilla hopes to lift silverware with Houston, then for a chance to play in LaLiga or another of Europe’s top leagues to materialize.
According to reports from Spain, he's not far off as is, with LaLiga clubs Rayo Vallecano and Getafe CF showing keen interest.
“It’s never been a secret, and, in fact, I told the club when I first arrived that I’d like to return to Europe and play in a top league in the first division,” Carrasquilla said. “That all comes hand-in-hand with it being the right time, the agreements clubs make, and it’s something I have in mind. I’d like to achieve it, but I understand that soccer isn’t something you can just live and experience what you want to when you want to.
“It’s also about what soccer offers you. Those are things where you’ve got to see where it’s at during the journey.”
That journey has been joyous this year. As the Dynamo push toward the playoffs and their massive September final (Carrasquilla's second in three months) and Panama aim to qualify for another CNL Finals (and in turn, a bid to Copa América next summer) it's fair to say you’ll definitely be seeing more of the dynamic midfielder with his iconic locks around.
For club and for country, Coco Carrasquilla's story is just beginning.