Stejskal: Houston's winter signings translating early on | FCD's CCL hopes

I’ve written a decent amount this year about how I thought the Chicago Fire won the offseason. I loved the moves the Fire made this winter, and the early returns on their new group – headlined by Dax McCarty, Juninho and Nemanja Nikolic – have certainly been positive.

In writing so much about Chicago, however, I’ve given short shrift to another team whose promising offseason moves have paid off even more handsomely so far in the young season: the Houston Dynamo.

After a turbulent 2016 that saw former manager Owen Coyle leave the club in May and ended with the club finishing last in the West, Houston made major changes this winter. They set the tone early, choosing to hire Wilmer Cabrera as head coach from USL affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC instead of retaining Wade Barrett, who served as interim manager after Coyle’s departure.

With Cabrera on board, the Dynamo got to work making their roster younger, deeper and more talented. Their biggest moves came up top, where they added a pair of Honduran internationals, 25-year-old Romell Quioto and 21-year-old Alberth Elis, brought back 24-year-old Erick “Cubo” Torres after Cruz Azul declined to make his loan move permanent and traded veteran Will Bruin to Seattle.

We’re only two games in, but so far, that three-man forward line has been electric. The quick Quioto and Elis have led Cabrera’s counterattacking system effectively, while Torres – much-maligned in his first two years with the Dynamo – finally seems like he’s rounding into form. He and Quioto found the back of the net in Houston’s 2-1 win against the Sounders on opening day, and all three forwards scored in the club’s 3-1 win against Columbus on Saturday.

Torres’ early-season success has been particularly noteworthy. The Dynamo paid big money for the Mexican striker and had high expectations for him after he scored 22 goals in 44 games with Chivas USA in 2013 and 2014, but his first two years with the club were nothing short of a disaster. He never really settled in Houston, frequently pinging back and forth between Texas and Mexico and failing to score a single goal in just 22 regular season appearances.

When Houston sent him on loan to Cruz Azul last fall, his future with the Dynamo seemed in doubt. But he failed to make an impact with the Liga MX club before an injury cut his season short, and Cruz Azul chose not to exercise their $2.5 million option to make his move permanent. He returned to Houston for preseason, reuniting with Cabrera, his head coach at Chivas USA when he scored 15 goals in 29 matches in 2014.

Now, just two games into 2017, he’s fitter, more confident and wildly more effective than he’s been at any other point in his Dynamo career.

“I think what’s important for a forward is rhythm, that’s something that’s really important. And to Erick’s credit, he’s worked extremely hard in the offseason,” Dynamo general manager Matt Jordan said. “He’s really committed himself with his training, both on and off the field – he’s focused. And I think it also benefits him that he knows that there’s a head coach that’s confident in him and his abilities, so I think that’s important, too.”

While Jordan is pleased with the first two matches of 2017, he knows from experience not to get too far ahead of himself. After all, the Dynamo got off to a hot start last year, drawing New England 3-3 in the season opener before smashing FC Dallas 5-0 in their second match before losing five of their next six.

He knows this group isn’t a finished product, but he is optimistic that increased competition on every line will help the Dynamo sustain their early success this year. In addition to the three starters on the forward line, Houston have quality reserves in Mauro Manotas and winger Andrew Wenger. Their midfield is similarly crowded, with starters Ricardo Clark, Eric Alexander and Alex (who had a quietly solid 2016 and has been excellent this year) pushed by offseason Targeted Allocation Money signing Juan David Cabezas and Dynamo stalwart Boniek Garcia.

I’m not completely sold on their backline, but the re-signing of DaMarcus Beasley and trade for longtime LA Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza give Houston a pair of solid outside backs, even if I have questions about their central defensive pairing of offseason signing Adolfo Machado and ex-LA man Leonardo. I wouldn’t be surprised if Houston tried to add a piece there later this year, with Jordan saying on Wednesday that the club is considering signing a third Designated Player in the summer window.

But that’s a few months off, at minimum. More immediately, Houston will face the biggest test of their young season on Saturday, when they’ll take on the 2-0-0 Portland Timbers at Providence Park (10:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE). The match will be a great litmus test for Houston. A loss in one of the MLS’ toughest environments would by no means derail anything for the Dynamo, but a result at the talented Timbers would really turn heads for a team that had the kind of winter that could lead to significant improvement in 2017.

CCL vet Morales optimistic about FCD's CCL odds

FC Dallas got a decent result in Leg 1 of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Pachuca on Wednesday, coming back from an early 1-0 deficit to beat Pachuca 2-1 at Toyota Stadium.

I’m not sure that’ll be enough for Dallas to advance to the CCL final. Pachuca are a talented, in-form team, and their home-field advantage – Estadio Hidalgo is 8,500 feet above sea level – is significant. Winning, drawing or even losing by one while scoring at least one goal in the second leg on April 4 will be a tall order for FCD, though Wednesday’s result certainly gives them a solid chance at getting to the final.

One man who thinks Dallas can pull it off? FCD midfielder Javier Morales.

Morales, of course, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the CCL. The 37-year-old has a ton of experience in the tournament, memorably leading Real Salt Lake within a goal of lifting the trophy in 2011, qualifying for the tournament again with RSL in 2012 and making a run to the quarterfinals with Salt Lake last year.

Speaking to him before Wednesday’s match, Morales said his new team compares favorably to the RSL team that came so close to winning the CCL in 2011.

“We have everything to be successful,” he told me over the phone on Tuesday, “but that doesn’t mean anything. Because in 2011 with Salt Lake when we were there, it was the same thing, it was a goal different and that’s the thing. We got the good result in Monterrey and then back home we lost the game. I think CONCACAF, the international tournaments, it’s about details. I think we have the weapons to be successful and to get to the final, but to lift that trophy we have to be smart and I think the details make the difference in those kind of games.”

We’ll see if FCD, who were the first MLS team to win a CCL match in Mexico way back in 2011, can clamp down on the details in Leg 2 in Pachuca.  

Minnesota's goalkeeper crisis 

Minnesota United FC are dealing with a bit of an injury crisis in net, with starter John Alvbage (knee) and third-stringer Patrick McLain out for Saturday’s match at Colorado (9 pm ET; MLS LIVE) due to injuries.

Former New England ‘keeper Bobby Shuttleworth, who was acquired late in preseason in a trade with the Revs, will get the start at the Rapids. To back him up, MNUFC had to sign Billy Heavner, an undrafted rookie out of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, to a four-day contract under the league’s “extreme hardship call-up” rule. He’ll be with the Loons at least for this weekend, and potentially beyond, depending on when McLain returns from his concussion.

Normally, a club in this situation would call-up an MLS pool goalkeeper. Historically, the league has had a few pool ‘keepers that they can allocate to teams dealing with an injury crisis in net. Those players are under salary from the league and often train with individual clubs. A few former pool goalkeepers have gone on to contribute in MLS, with Sporting KC’s Tim Melia a notable success story.  

Minnesota, however, had to find Heavner on their own because the league does not yet have any pool goalkeepers signed for 2017, a league spokesperson confirmed to MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. The spokesperson said that MLS are planning on signing pool goalkeepers, but have not yet agreed to deals with any in the young season. That shouldn't affect anyone too much, but it's a small thing to keep an eye on as the season progresses. 

Game of the Week

A matchup in the best atmosphere in MLS between two of the three remaining 2-0-0 teams, both of whom just so happen to be a ton of fun going forward? Yeah, give me Houston at Portland on Saturday night (10:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE).

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