National Writer: Charles Boehm

Houston Dynamo challenge for West elite: “We can make the city proud"


Houston Dynamo FC’s impressive revival under Ben Olsen kept rolling on Wednesday, as La Naranja eviscerated the in-form Vancouver Whitecaps 4-1 at Shell Energy Stadium, driven onwards by another scintillating performance (1g/1a) from star midfielder Héctor Herrera. The win extends Houston’s league unbeaten run to seven matches, the club’s longest such streak in over a decade.

“It was just one of those nights where the goal seems big,” head coach Ben Olsen told reporters in his postgame press conference, “and we've had those more times than not here at home.”

Now at fourth place in the Western Conference, just one point back of defending MLS Cup champions LAFC, two back of second-place Seattle and seven off pacesetters St. Louis with a game in hand, the Dynamo have quietly climbed into the West elite – and will duel Inter Miami for a US Open Cup title in a week’s time.

The vibes in H-town? They’re pretty superb at the moment.

“It's fun. It's a fun group. They like each other. They play for each other. They play hard,” said Olsen. “A little moody at times, we're a little bit chaotic. But they’ve entertained our home crowd, and I think they’ve played some really good soccer.

“So I'm happy that we're in this spot. But we want more.”

"We go as Héctor goes"

While Olsen has emphasized the collective, and with good reason, the inspiration and productivity of Houston’s most prominent player has been a massive factor in their turnaround from bottom dwellers to trophy contenders in year one of his tenure. The Mexican international opened Wednesday’s scoreline with a deflected free-kick goal and ran the show in midfield throughout.

Herrera, like the club as a whole, has been reinvigorated after a difficult adjustment period following his midseason arrival from Atlético Madrid as a Designated Player last summer.

“We go as Héctor goes,” said Olsen. “We've said that from the start. His ability to pull the strings and create for us, but also lead us in the right direction, has been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of fun to work with him, I think we have a pretty good relationship. And he feels a real responsibility with this club and where it goes. He feels that pressure.

“I don't know why it's a surprise, right, but he's showing everyone he's an elite, world-class soccer player. The guy played in Europe at one of the best teams in the world, in several World Cups, and it's almost as if, because he came here and for a couple months, he wasn't at the level he's at now, people wrote him off. And I think he heard that as well. I think this is a personal thing with him, and that's great.”

To add to the good news, on Wednesday the Dynamo welcomed another DP back to the lineup, with center back Teenage Hadebe making his first start since April.

“My goal is to finish the season strong and help the team to make it to the playoffs. We are on the right track,” said the Zimbabwean postgame. “For the Open Cup, we want to go there to Miami and win for the fans, for our families, for the club. This club deserves more. I think together, we can make the city proud. I believe in this team.”

Hell in the Shell

Mindful of the difficulties the Bayou City’s warm, muggy climate can present to visiting teams, the Dynamo have sought to cultivate a strong home-field advantage, coining the phrase “Hell in the Shell,” and to good effect: Houston are now 10W-2L-3D at their place, one of the league’s best marks.

The team’s rugged physicality and fluid, pass-happy midfield have been big factors in that, as have their supporters. Olsen did not hesitate to aim higher still, both on the field and in the stands.

“It feels loud, there's good energy in this building. I want more energy out of this building. There's still not enough people here,” he declared. “Again, I've said this before, I'll just be honest: I think we can double this. That's on us. That's on us as an organization and the coach and the team to bring people out.

“So we're all working on it, but I want more. However, the people that are showing up are doing their part and they're loud and they're giving us the energy that we need here at home. And it's been a big part of it. There's nothing that makes a coach or a staff and players happier than looking at happy faces after you win a game at home. This is what it's about.”

La Naranja can stamp their progress under Olsen by claiming hardware in the Open Cup Final at DRV PNK Stadium on Sept. 27. Even with the fitness of megastar Lionel Messi in doubt, Miami will probably remain favorites, and the Dynamo will relish the opportunity to test their own growth against the Herons. Olsen hinted at squad rotation for this Saturday's visit to Sporting Kansas City (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“The hunger is there. I think this Open Cup game really keeps us dialed in as well,” said the former D.C. United boss. “The amount of games is good in this moment, because it allows you to freshen up the lineups with guys that are ready to show that they belong on the field. So there's a few things working for us in that way.

"… Obviously there's a game looming Wednesday that's important, but we got a job to do in Kansas City first. We're going to mix up the lineup again and use our depth, but we'll still be able to put out a good team.”