When club legend Pat Onstad first arrived as general manager of Houston Dynamo FC in November 2021, he knew it was a big project. Nearing the end of year one, it might have been even more arduous than imagined.
On Monday, with the club sitting bottom of the Western Conference table amid a rebuild with new ownership, a new front office, new stars and a new manager, the Dynamo announced they parted ways with head coach Paulo Nagamura. Kenny Bundy has taken over as interim head coach from MLS NEXT Pro affiliate Dynamo 2 to finish out the 2022 MLS season.
Nagamura was hired ahead of the campaign from Sporting Kansas City's second team and lasted 29 league games. They won only twice in their last 13 matches (8W-16L-5D overall).
“One thing I’ve learned in this seat is the years of being unsuccessful here have been more difficult to overcome than I expected," Onstad told media Wednesday during a virtual press conference.
A former goalkeeper, Onstad won two MLS Cups during his time in Houston from 2006-10. The Dynamo reached two more in 2011 and 2012 (losing both), but have made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs once in the last eight years. Now, Onstad and the front office are leading another coaching search, less than a year after the last one.
One point of sustained frustration Onstad pointed out, long-term and continuing into 2022, is failing to see out games where Houston took the lead. The Dynamo have dropped 21 points from winning positions this season, third-worst in MLS.
“First and foremost, it is a results business," Onstad said. "I know it’s a cliché, but we’re dead last in the West. I don’t feel our roster is [dead last]. We invested a fair amount of money. … We’re not performing to our level.”
Onstad added the club made the change now with five games left in the season to get a kickstart on the coaching search – and that once the decision was made, it would be unfair and disrespectful to Nagamura to have him continue for the rest of the season with the club looking elsewhere for the future.
Last winter, Houston took longer than expected to hire a manager. They had interviews with numerous candidates, including the likes of Luchi Gonzalez and Pablo Mastroeni, among others, before reaching a deal with Nagamura. Mastroeni stayed with Real Salt Lake, while Gonzalez went to the US men's national team and will become the San Jose Earthquakes' head coach in 2023 after the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
"One of the reasons we made the decision now was so we could start the search early. … We’ve probably gotten 60 applicants in 72 hours already," Onstad said. "We have a profile for what we’re looking for. If we can get someone in quickly, great, but we want to make sure it’s the right person."
That profile includes MLS experience and a history of winning in this league, though Onstad added the club are not ruling out coaches from abroad.
Onstad pointed to positive aspects of Nagamura's brief tenure, including reestablishing a positive culture as well as never losing the locker room, despite some poor results.
“I don’t regret hiring Paulo, I think he’s a very good coach," Onstad said. "If you look at Jesse Marsch and Gregg Berhalter, they struggled in their first year and both of them are fantastic coaches.”
Houston's core on the playing field includes Designated Players Sebastian Ferreira and Hector Herrera, both signed this year. The Dynamo are 2W-6L-2D since Herrera, Mexico's captain and a former Atletico Madrid midfielder, made his debut on July 10 against FC Dallas.
“The decision lies with me," Onstad said. "If we’re in the same position next year, it’s a big problem for me and it’s my fault. We want to get ahead of it and find the person to help us continue to grow.”
Bundy joined the Dynamo in 2016 and worked as a head coach for the U19 and U23 academy teams before taking over as the inaugural head coach for Dynamo 2. They have qualified for the playoffs in the first season of MLS NEXT Pro.
He now steps into the first team as interim head coach, with five games left and a fifth-straight playoff miss likely around the corner.
“The first thing is it's important for the players to understand the expectation is for us to be competitive in these five games," Bundy said. "There is going to be a structure, an outline that will benefit the players. Hopefully we can see games out. One thing this team has done is competed, that’s a piece that’s very hard to gain. My job is to build a structure, an outline and tweak a couple things.”
The Dynamo have more points than only D.C. United in MLS this season. They have the chance to play spoiler for other teams chasing the playoffs or the Supporters' Shield over their final five games.
“I’m holding my hand up with accountability on this; I’m sure there are things I could have done better," Onstad said. "These five games matter, that includes the players, staff, the executive group, myself – everyone. This isn’t Paulo’s record, this is our club’s record. We have to find a way to make it better.”