“Personally, I always had the confidence that when the team found that click, the absolute knowledge between us as players and the good environment, things were going to change,” Herrera told MLSsoccer.com this week. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would be so quick, but we had a lot of faith and hope that we had a good team that could compete like we are now, thankfully.”
His belief was well-placed. The Dynamo won the US Open Cup in late September and enter the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference with 51 points this season (14W-11L-9D record). Those results far surpass last season’s 18-loss, 36-point campaign – the fourth-worst finish in the league. Herrera’s superb play has been one of the biggest factors in the club’s improvement, finishing second in the league for assists (17) and adding four goals over the course of more than 2,500 league minutes.
Ahead of Sunday's Round One Best-of-3 playoff showdown with Real Salt Lake (6 pm ET | Apple TV - Free), MLSsoccer.com spoke to Herrera and four Houston Dynamo figures around him – head coach Ben Olsen, general manager Pat Onstad and teammates Corey Baird and Nelson Quiñónes – to better understand how the star central midfielder helped his team right the ship in 2023.
Herrera: “[I wasn't] 100% focused”
Herrera wanted to hit the ground running in Houston, and he felt good in his first two or three matches with the club after joining in the summer following his 2021-22 LaLiga campaign with Atlético Madrid. Yet, a lingering hamstring injury kept him from playing his best, and the upcoming World Cup with El Tri meant he was loath to push it and put what could be the last World Cup of his career at risk.
“A lot of factors came into play. I was thinking more about taking care of myself for the World Cup than about playing, things like that,” Herrera said. “Those factors don’t help and make it so you’re not 100% focused. Now, I’m taking care of myself, giving everything for the team.”
It shows, and that attitude can be contagious. The Dynamo have gotten contributions from many more players than just Herrera, of course, but all season those players have benefitted from the type of distribution Houston felt they would be getting when they signed him from Atlético.
And with new Mexico manager Jaime Lozano not calling Herrera in of late, the playmaker had even more time to focus on his club commitments and try to become the leader other Dynamo players looked to in tough moments. He readjusted his standard, making sure it was where it had been during his days in LaLiga.
“I consider myself a winner who always wants perfection, for the team to be playing well,” Herrera said. “I was feeling good, and I knew it was going to be a big challenge I wanted to take on.”
Olsen: “We go as you go”
Ben Olsen is puzzled. Héctor Herrera has been great all season, “cooking” in Olsen’s words, yet we’re only doing this interview now. Plus, this is Héctor Herrera we’re talking about. You know, the guy who has played more than 4,000 minutes in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.
“I don’t know why this is a surprise,” Olsen said. “I still feel like people are surprised at the level he’s playing at. This is a guy who’s been at several World Cups, he’s played at one of the best teams in the world in Atlético, played in Portugal before that at an unbelievable club!”
With that résumé, Olsen didn’t have any doubt when he took over: Herrera was going to be the centerpiece of the Dynamo. After starting the job, the coach scheduled a Zoom call with each player, but the discussion with his marquee Designated Player always was going to be an important one.
“This is going to be your team,” Olsen told him. “You’re going to be the leader of this team and we go as you go.”
Herrera remembers countering in that call that he didn’t care if the team was built around him or not, just as long as it was filled with competitive winners. He’s found that with the current Dynamo squad – as well as plenty of smiles from his relationship with Olsen, dating back to that first conversation.
“Ben and I have a really good relationship. We laugh a lot at ourselves because he doesn’t really speak any Spanish, I don’t speak English, so you can imagine the meetings we have or the chats we have before or after games,” Herrera said.
Onstad: “He tried to take it all on”
Dynamo general manager Pat Onstad didn’t downplay it when the club signed Herrera. This was a huge move, announced in a news conference with Onstad, owner Ted Segal, Herrera and then-head coach Paulo Nagamura.
Off the field, things started well, but on the field, things started to turn when Herrera picked up a hamstring knock. After that initial fanfare period, Herrera quickly felt the pressure, not only to perform in Houston but to get to the 2022 World Cup, taking place in the winter, healthy.
“Last year, when I came in I wanted to do too much and ended up doing my job poorly,” Herrera said. “This year, I had in my head that I needed to do well what I can do well and help my teammates do their job in their spots. I think it’s worked out really well because I think I’m in great form, helping my team well and obviously my teammates are doing well, too.”
Onstad felt that Herrera struggled off the field in 2022. After daunting but manageable jumps from Pachuca to Porto to Madrid, Houston was a different environment, and Herrera was at a different stage of his life. While lots of Spanish is spoken in the city, the Dynamo locker room communicated largely in English.
“It was not an ideal start for him, but I still thought he played pretty well for us. I think he tried to take it all on, and that’s not his strength,” Onstad said. “He’s a really good player that makes people around him better, but he needs complementary pieces.”
Onstad and technical director Asher Mendelsohn went to work finding those pieces, with Olsen now steering the ship. They added Artur to beef up the midfield, signed Amine Bassi as a creative player and added center back Erik Sviatchenko from Denmark. There were other moves as well, many designed to let Herrera do what he’s good at – and avoid the things he isn’t.
That approach extended to the locker room as well. The midfielder said he has his own way of carrying himself, his own style, and wasn’t sure if he’d be expected to captain the team in a certain way. Onstad and the Dynamo braintrust made clear that he was welcome to be verbal, to lead by example or to find a balance.
“At the end of the day, you have to be yourself to be a good leader,” Onstad said. “I think once he understood that and had some faith in the group we were surrounding him with. That’s when you saw the best of him.”
Baird: “[He] brings the best out of everybody”
Corey Baird grew up not far from where Herrera did, raised in San Diego County just across the border from Herrera’s native Baja California. That, combined with watching Herrera in the green of El Tri, meant the Dynamo forward knew right away the team was getting a special player last summer.
Baird’s confidence in Herrera persisted even as the latter struggled through his first several months with the Dynamo, and it only grew as the team started to work together with Olsen and his staff before the campaign.
“Coming in mid-season, it’s always tough. You’re just kind of thrown into it,” Baird said. “A preseason with so many new players, new coaching staff, I think it was just kind of a fresh start where we could think of ourselves not as this team struggling at the bottom of the table, but you have the opportunity in front of you. He, in particular, has done a great job of that, where in games we’re not playing our best we have confidence on the ball, we play in a way we want to play.
“The way he demands that from us, you can’t hide. It brings the best out of everybody.”
And, yes, it is a demand. Sometimes knocked in Mexico for being too relaxed, Herrera has no doubt found his voice in Texas.
“There’s numerous times I’ve been yelled at by Héctor,” Baird said, laughing. “All throughout the game he’s demanding more from his teammates, which can be unpleasant, but it’s something that has very positively affected us.”
Nelson Quiñónes turned up late last season in Houston but feels like the relationship with Herrera was formed this year.
He’s definitely heard the same yelling from Herrera that Baird mentioned at times, saying he feels he’s the player who Herrera is most likely to call out after a mistake.
“He talks to me when I’m not doing things well and he knows he can give me a hand. He corrects me and I take it well,” the Colombian said.
Quiñónes and Herrera's close relationship is due partly to the fact that both are native Spanish-speakers and partly because the former is eager to learn from what the World Cup veteran has achieved. He also knows any yelling comes with plenty of love behind it.
“He writes a lot of messages to me, he’s always sending me messages of support. He always sends me messages before the game,” Quiñónes said. “That definitely makes me stronger.”
The secret recipe? Lots of fun
It may be odd given all his technical abilities, all the moments of correction, the messages of support and Spanglish tactical chats, but, for Herrera’s teammates, the most critical thing about his influence on the Dynamo may be the enjoyment he’s brought to the team. Unprompted, everyone mentions how much fun they’re having in 2023.
“It’s been amazing,” says Baird, noting that there are "a lot of DJs" in the locker room but the team is always dancing to different styles of music. “It’s fun to play in. It’s a completely different mentality.”
“This group is as close as I’ve ever seen a team in my life,” notes Onstad. “They just really like one another. They enjoy hanging out, they enjoy listening to each other’s music and giving each other stick.”
“This year has been fun,” Olsen adds. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had fun coaching. And, you know, I’ve had fun. I think a big part of the joy this year has been watching this group on and off the field. I’ve enjoyed watching them enjoy it.”
Herrera said he’s been telling people that he wished he enjoyed previous moments of his career as much as he’s enjoying 2023.
“I’m really, really enjoying playing,” he said. “I’ve never been so happy and enjoyed playing so much. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing well. You see it in the team. It plays with joy, plays well and when a team is united and there’s joy in the group, I think you see that in the results, on the field. You’re seeing it.”
Now, Herrera and the Dynamo are focusing on a moment that would bring even more joy: playoff success and MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9 at the end of the road – another trophy in what the team hoped would be many after signing Herrera.