The Friday press conference that officially introduced Hector Herrera as Houston Dynamo FC’s showcase summer signing offered many hallmarks of a superstar’s arrival: a throng of television cameras, multi-millionaire club owner on the dais, TUDN on-air personality Luis Omar Tapia serving as emcee, expansive talk about projects, trophies and organizational culture, a late start as the various personalities got into place.
There was even a governmental component, as Houston City Council member David Robinson turned up to deliver a warm message of welcome, in both English and Spanish, from Mayor Sylvester Turner and their colleagues, proclaiming the civic leadership to be “extremely excited” at Herrera’s presence in Space City.
For some, the recruitment of the Mexican national team mainstay in early March may have been shaded by subsequent sensational MLS captures like Gareth Bale to LAFC and Lorenzo Insigne to Toronto FC. But make no mistake: “HH” (pronounced ‘a-che a-che’ in Spanish) is a very big deal indeed for H-town and its soccer club. An acquisition so profound, in fact, as to be the cornerstone of a transformed Dynamo.
“What you'll hear time and again about Hector from fans and teammates around the world in Pachuca, Porto, Atletico de Madrid, and of course as a stalwart for the Mexican national team,” said Dynamo owner Ted Segal, “and that is Hector is hard-working. A leader. Has made his team a winner at every post in his career, and an intense competitor for his clubs and country, who holds himself and his teammates to a high standard. And that last bit of the description is especially important.”
"I can offer the best of me"
Segal became Houston’s majority owner just over a year ago, and quickly set about transforming multiple facets of not only the organization itself, but how it is perceived by the local community and the wider soccer world.
General manager Pat Onstad noted how Segal is both investing in and demanding accountability at the club, and in a comparable vein, Herrera has been asked to lead and inspire in the locker room just as much as in central midfield.
“Ted came here and said, ‘I'm going to invest in this team. I'm going to spend money that's going to help make this team better,” said Onstad, a Dynamo icon in his playing days who Segal lured back to south Texas from the Columbus Crew along with technical director Asher Mendelsohn to oversee Houston’s rebuild. “So Ted is holding us accountable. He's given us an opportunity to sign a player of Hector's quality.”
And as the 32-year-old Herrera acknowledged with a laugh, there may be a bit of kismet at work here: A crafty, hungry engine-room linchpin nicknamed “El Zorro” has chosen a team whose sidelines and stands are roamed by a giant fox mascot dubbed “Diesel.”
“I believe that the project, the future that awaits us is very big and I am here to win titles,” said Herrera in Spanish. “I believe that I have arrived at my best moment, where I can still give my best, where I can help the team to reach the top, to win, and I think the number-one thing that motivated me to make this decision, to come to this great club, is the ambition.
“I feel in my best shape, my greatest maturity. I think that when you reach a certain age you feel mature, you feel confident, you fully trust what you do. You don't need anyone to come and tell you that you're doing it right or you're doing it wrong; you're self-critical,” he added. “I can offer the best of me for this project, and not in a few years [when] I could no longer give the best of me on the field.”
"The team comes first"
Herrera has experience of Houston from visits with El Tri. In order to open this new chapter, he, his wife Shantal and their two children called time on an impressive European adventure of nearly a decade, where he won Portuguese and LaLiga titles at Porto and Atleti and set a new record for most UEFA Champions League matches by a Mexican player – eclipsing a mark previously held by the LA Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
Hinting at the restlessness caused by his playing time slipping last season under Atleti manager Diego Simeone, he said he’s confident of bringing his top level to MLS during a World Cup year with El Tri. And he repeatedly vowed to make a contender out of a club that reached four MLS Cup finals (winning two of them) in its first seven seasons of existence but has qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs just twice in the nine years since.
“Las metas son claras: Ganar, ganar y ganar. No hay otro camino,” said Herrera, meaning, ‘the goals are clear: win, win and win. There is no other way.’
“The team comes first and I think that is part of my mentality and my way of being,” he added. “You have to work for the team and most importantly, win.”
Beyond that success-obsessed mentality, head coach Paulo Nagamura – who remained cagey about his precise tactical plans for his high-grade midseason reinforcement – hailed the Pachuca product’s well-rounded skill set.
“Since my first interaction with Hector, it was clear that he checked all the boxes of what we’re looking [for], the profile that we look to add to the club in terms of the culture, in terms of technical ability, tactical ability, physical, mental,” said the Brazilian. “One thing that really turned our head on Hector was that he was really committed and really, really enthusiastic about the project that we have here.”
"He was all-in"
Undoubtedly, much is expected, and needed, from HH despite the drastic shift he and his family are making. La Naranja find themselves just below the Western Conference's playoff line at the 2022 season's halfway point, with promising flashes amid bouts of inconsistency leaving them on 21 points from a 6W-8L-3D record.
Nagamura called for further transfer-window shopping, particularly in the attacking end to supplement Paraguayan international striker Sebastian Ferreira, one of three Designated Players alongside HH and Zimbabwean international center back Teenage Hadebe. There’s some flexibility available – Hadebe can be bought down – and only Brazilian winger Thiago Rodrigues occupies a U22 Initiative spot. Perhaps Nagamura will get his wish.
In the immediacy, in headline-grabbing fashion, the first two matches in which Herrera is eligible to play are spicy clashes with Houston’s cross-Texan rivals from Dallas and Austin, respectively July 9 at their PNC Stadium home and July 12 when visiting Q2 Stadium. Right into the pressure-cooker Herrera will go, a player Onstad wisecracked "can play forever" after the Dynamo's performance department analyzed his injury history and physiology, then reported back positively.
"I don't know about forever, because I tried forever. It didn't work," Onstad joked.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether this sea change, with Herrera at the forefront, will bear fruit in 2022. Yet Friday marked a big step.
“Notwithstanding his singular talents, we’re under no illusion that Hector alone is responsible for the team’s success. These turnarounds don't happen overnight, as much as we're trying,” said Segal. “But all of us: Coach Nagamura, Pat, Asher, our entire roster, including Hector, are committed and determined to do something special here in Houston. Hector wouldn't be here if he didn't think – if we didn't think – that he was all-in on building this.”