Stejskal: Selling Cubo Torres gives Houston much-needed roster flexibility

Erick 'Cubo' Torres - Houston Dynamo - celebrates a goal with a thumbs up

In MLS, the offseason is about gaining, not maintaining. In this era of new money, teams that simply retain their important pieces get passed. Clubs are forced to go out and significantly improve their rosters to have any serious hope of climbing the standings season-to-season.

That goes double for a team like the Houston Dynamo, who surprised most of the league in 2017 with a solid turnaround season following four years of lackluster results.

Houston raced out of the gate last year, burning teams with a lightning-quick counterattack to go 6-3-1 in their first 10 matches. Cubo Torres, who was transferred to Liga MX club Pumas UNAM on Thursday, was a huge part of that hot start, scoring 12 goals in his first 17 games to pace Houston’s excellent attack.

At about the midway point, however, opponents started to figure out the Dynamo and Torres. Though they signed midfielder Tomas Martinez to a Young Designated Player contract in the summer to add more diversity to their attack, Houston remained one-dimensional for most of 2017. For them, it was the counter or bust; in the second half of the regular season, there were too many busts. Opponents locked down on Torres and put the clamps on Houston, who went 7-7-10 after that 6-3-1 start as Torres scored just twice in the final four months of the year.

They righted themselves in the playoffs, beating Sporting KC in the Knockout Round and upsetting Portland in the West Semifinals before getting run over by Seattle in the Conference Championship, but Houston knew they wouldn’t be able to build on their 2017 without significant offseason adds.

The only problem? Their hands were a bit tied. The Dynamo spent significantly to permanently acquire midfielder Juan David Cabezas and electric forward Alberth Elis after their loans expired this winter, and that just about maxed out their budget. They had three DPs on the books in Elis, Martinez and Torres, and, barring an unexpected dip into the pot of discretionary TAM, lacked room to add much else.

That changed on Thursday, when the Dynamo pulled off perhaps the most important move of their offseason by selling Torres to Pumas for an undisclosed fee.

Regardless of how much money Houston received for Torres, this deal is huge for their 2018 hopes. Torres occupied a DP spot and made $695,000 in 2017, per the MLS Players’ Union. That DP spot is now freed up, as is that significant salary. Any transfer fee received would further add to their new cap space.

While he set the club record with 14 goals last year, Torres was a bit surplus to requirements in Houston. The Dynamo preferred promising 22-year-old center forward Mauro Manotas down the stretch in 2017, and the young Colombian produced similar numbers to Torres over the course of the season. He’ll likely be the full-time starter at striker this year, and he brings a bit more to the table than Torres, who’s an archetypical poacher.

That means more tactical flexibility for Houston, who now have the room to sign another talented player to further vary their attack in 2018. GM Matt Jordan said in a conference call with media that Houston may not make that signing until the summer, but it’s a safe bet that it’s coming. Head coach Wilmer Cabrera has been making noise about expanding his tactics beyond the counter in 2018, and he could use another talented playmaker as he tries to add a new look to the Dynamo attack.

“What this provides is flexibility with the roster with finding the right fit, and it will let us continue to see how our players grow,” Jordan said when asked about adding a DP. “Right now, all options are on the table and we won’t be putting a specific timeline on anything. We don’t feel like we have to rush to do anything just for the sake of doing it, whether that happens now or in the summer. We are not going to put a time table on anything. We feel very good about the group that we have assembled, and I know the guys are excited about the direction that we are moving.”

They should be. Houston know they won’t be able to build on last year’s success if they don’t establish a new style to pair with the counterattack that served them well in 2017. Moving Torres on Thursday made that job a whole lot easier, and significantly increased the odds the Dynamo will make gains this season.