Hope springs eternal in professional sports, particularly so given the high-variance nature of MLS. Rosters change, coaches change and a few moves can dramatically alter a club’s outlook.
“A few moves” doesn’t quite describe the overhaul Houston Dynamo FC underwent for the 2023 campaign. The Western Conference club was among the league’s busiest teams over the winter as they prepare for a Matchday 1 test at FC Cincinnati on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
Former D.C. United manager Ben Olsen took over as head coach and an overhaul of the playing squad quickly followed, bringing in 13 players after parting ways with 15 others. A key part of the club’s evolution, however, can be traced back to last summer, when legendary Mexican midfielder Héctor Herrera arrived on a free transfer from LaLiga side Atletico Madrid. His first half-season was marred with minor injuries and less-than-ideal performances/results.
“For Héctor, it’s an important year,” Dynamo general manager Pat Onstad told MLSsoccer.com. “We don’t want to hide behind it, last year was a difficult year. He got injured early on and never really found his footing. It’s understandable. In his mind, I’m sure it was his last World Cup.”
It begged the follow-up question: Are Houston worried about their star Designated Player?
“I’m not concerned about Héctor Herrera,” Onstad said without a moment’s hesitation.
“Would I like to see more buy-in?” Onstad asked rhetorically. “For us, we need him to be a leader. We need him to be like he is with Mexico. When there’s confrontation on the field, he’s the first m—-------r there. That’s what we need for him here, for him to bring that fight. That’s something we’ve been lacking.”
Herrera is an integral part of the group, but just one element of a roster overhaul that kicked off when Onstad took over ahead of the 2021 season. The transformation became even more dramatic this winter.
“Part of last year, the salary cap we inherited was what it was,” Onstad said. “It’s what new GMs walk into, so we spent the year evaluating everybody from the technical side. So, we made 13 new signings to the roster and added 15 new staff members. We’ve had a lot of turnover.”
The headlining additions include creative, young attackers Amine Bassi and Iván Franco as well as veteran MLS defenders Franco Escobar and Brad Smith. Bassi and Franco are tasked with taking the brunt of the creative burden for an attack led by Designated Player forward Sebastián Ferreira. Escobar (MLS Cup 2018 and 2022 winner) and Smith (MLS Cup 2019 winner) bring proven experience to a revamped backline.
“We needed to get younger and we needed to find winners,” Onstad said. “That was our focus. … I think we did a pretty good job of that. There’s still some top-end talent we’d like to get after, but I’m happier with where our roster is now compared to last year.”
Houston also feel better about how the pieces fit together. The attack now has creativity without sacrificing defensive structure (the Darwin Quintero conundrum of last year) with Bassi and Franco as options. The other side has more verticality with Corey Baird and Nelson Quiñónes.
“It’s not the finished product,” Onstad said. “We still have some more additions hopefully, but we’re in a much better place than last year.”
Youngsters breaking into the first team?
Last year, a main point of emphasis from the new front office was revamping the academy-to-first team pipeline. This year, Houston could see some fruits of their labor.
“I like our youth,” Onstad said. “We focused on that, we got some young guys and where our roster is at, we’re going to play some of those guys. The good thing about Ben is if they’re good enough, he’ll play them.”
Houston’s two top homegrown options are midfielders Juan Castilla and Brooklyn Raines. Castilla, 18, was just with Colombia at the South American U-20 Championships in January after spending last season getting minutes in MLS NEXT Pro. He helped Colombia qualify for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Indonesia, placing third at the continental competition.
“He stood out on their team,” Onstad said of Castilla. “He outplayed some guys we were scouting as a club, so we were like, ‘Hang on a second.’ I’m so excited for him to get in front of fresh eyes with a new coaching staff and technical staff. Right now, you can see him brimming with confidence.”
Raines, 17, also was a regular with the Dynamo’s second team last season as he looks to get minutes in MLS. A US youth international, Raines signed just over a year ago.
“Brooklyn Raines is a kid we’re excited about his future,” Onstad said. “He’ll have his ups and downs, but that’s what young players do. He’s a box-to-box No. 8 with a bit of bite for his age. He’s been interesting. We’re excited.”