Gabriel Rodriquez
Laredo Heat Forward Gabriel Rodriquez in 2018 NPSL Action (Image courtesy of Laredo Heat SC)

On Saturday afternoon Houston Dynamo defeated FC Dallas 2-1 at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium in the first iteration of the 2019 Texas Derby. Since this year’s version of the Derby is played over two matches, FC Dallas will get a second chance to return the favor and retain the coveted El Capitan cannon, awarded to the winner of the series each year, when the two MLS clubs meet in August.

On a smaller scale, Tuesday night in Laredo will provide a fascinating amateur lower league version of the Texas Derby. But since this match is part of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, with a knock-out format in place, there will be no second chances for either Brazos Valley Cavalry FC or Laredo Heat SC.

The 2018 NPSL Lone Star Conference Champion Heat will host reigning Premier Development (now USL League 2) Mid South Division Champion Brazos Valley (Bryan/College Station) in a U.S. Open Cup First Round match Tuesday night. Though four Texas teams will play in the first round of the Open Cup this week, this will be the only match where two Texas teams face off in this round.

Competitors In This Match But Partners Otherwise

Though this is the first ever meeting between Brazos Valley and Laredo, there are numerous story lines that connect Laredo Heat and MLS side Houston Dynamo, the Cavalry’s parent organization.

  • Last year Laredo Heat’s Youth Soccer club established a strategic partnership with the Houston Dynamo Academy involving technical co-operation between the respective staffs, that among other things, established three Heat teams (ranging from U-12 to U-16) to play in the South Texas Youth Soccer Association.
  • This will be the first appearance in the U.S. Open Cup for Brazos Valley. The Heat, who have been the most successful amateur soccer club ever to play in Texas, will be entering for the sixth time in this long running tournament. The first appearance came in 2006, when they lost in the first round to amateur side Dallas Roma, who then went on to win two more Open Cup games, including a victory over now defunct MLS side Chivas USA, before being eliminated by LA Galaxy. The Heat also participated in four consecutive years of the Open Cup between 2012 and 2015. The deepest run in this stretch came in 2014 where they won twice and advanced to the Fourth Round, before losing 1-0 on the road to…..Houston Dynamo….on a 38th minute goal from Alex Lopez.
  • A key Laredo Heat player who featured in this 2014 Open Cup match, former U.S. youth international forward Felix Garcia, had previously signed the first Houston Dynamo Generation Adidas developmental contract as an 18-year old when he was acquired from Laredo in 2009. Garcia is arguably the best player ever to come from Laredo, at least in recent memory. In a strange twist, Garcia, who had a young family, announced a few days later that he was returning to Laredo to finish high school and would be postponing his MLS career to a later TBD date. The MLS return never happened and Garcia, who returned to the Heat to play in the PDL for a few seasons-including this Cup match against Houston-is no longer playing high level soccer.
  • As is usually the case for teams from summer amateur soccer leagues, both clubs will field virtually completely changed over rosters from those that won their respective championships, but in this game the approaches both teams take will be very different. Laredo has built a roster of very experienced players with a distinctly international flavor. The Cavalry, because the majority of college players for their League 2 roster have not arrived, will field a predominately U-19 team from the Pre-Professional Phase of Houston Dynamo’s Academy system.
  • Both clubs will be seeking to win the Cup that is currently held by Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo defeated Philadelphia Union 3-0 last September to hoist the Open Cup trophy for the first time.

Tuesday’s Lower league Open Cup Derby First Round Match:

Laredo Heat:

Though the clubs are partners, the action shifts to the field on Tuesday night. The Heat are not only fielding a new roster, but also will be led by a new Head Coach, Aidan Davison, who arrives at Laredo from a unique last stop-goalkeeping coach for Pune City in the Indian Super League.

An English born Northern Irish citizen, Davison played for a number of years in England, including stops with Bradford City in the Premier League. He also played in a handful of international matches with the Northern Ireland National Team. This will not be his first exposure to soccer in the United States. Between 2011 and 2018 Davison coached teams in three different high-level amateur leagues in Florida and Arizona.

In constructing the 2019 roster the Heat felt they needed to prepare for both the Open Cup and NPSL season. Last year’s Head Coach Dana Taylor, who is serving as the club’s Technical Director and assisting in transitioning the day-to-day direction of the club to Davison, told Texas Soccer Journal in an interview last week that he picked the majority of the 2019 roster, due to Davison’s responsibilities in India. Using last year’s lessons learned, Taylor took a slightly different direction in building the club this year. “As we started to find and sign players, there were some very good players that wanted to be here, but there were availability problems, timing and all of those things,” Taylor continued “We went in a slightly different direction and I think we assembled a really good team.” Last year the club had a mostly younger domestic college-age roster, but this year the mix has shifted to an older mix of players. “The difference is we went down the road [and decided] we needed some mature players in order to potentially get through the first round of the Open Cup.”

Taylor added that the roster this year will have an average age of 23 vs. approximately 20 last year. Three players from last year return, including leading scorer Gabriel Rodriquez and goalkeeper Carlos Herrera, both local products who started a number of 2018 games with the Heat. Taylor also added that half of the new roster are not playing college soccer, but instead have recently played in professional leagues including USL, Spain’s Segunda B and the Costa Rican Liga FPD.

The Heat have specifically focused on building a deeper roster this year, especially in the midfield, to guard against potential injuries, like those that hurt them down the stretch in the playoffs last year. Taylor also noted the toll Southern Texas heat and humidity takes on players late in the season as an additional reason to build greater depth. Laredo entered the playoffs last year as the top seeded team in the NPSL, but fell in a dramatic quarterfinal round playoff to Little Rock in extra-time.

Taylor, who had previous PDL coaching experience with the San Jose Earthquakes U-23 side, expects to face a well coached Brazos Valley Cavalry team with very good players, commenting on the Dynamo Academy’s U-19 team they will face “well that’s an incredible team.” Though he has a lot of respect for the Cavalry, Taylor believes the club needs to focus internally first, stating that the new diverse roster the Heat have assembled needs to learn to play together. “We need to get out guys trained up and ready and I want to make sure we are doing what we need to do here to put them at ease, because we have a lot of good players. It’s going to be a great game.”

Brazos Valley Cavalry:

2018 Premier Development League Mid South Champions-Brazos Valley Cavalry

Brazos Valley Cavalry and Dynamo Academy U-19 Head Coach Kenny Bundy stated on the Houston Dynamo podcast Dynamo In-Depth last week that the Dynamo are also taking a different approach to how they will staff the U-23 Cavalry team this year. The club’s 2019 focus has been to recruit top college players, who aren’t part of Homegrown territories of other MLS teams, that the Dynamo technical staff believes may be potential fits for the Dynamo or their USL affiliate (Rio Grande Valley FC-RGV FC) down the road. Houston views this PDL season as an excellent opportunity for both the Dynamo and newly recruited players to learn about each other. During the summer, the Cavalry train at the same location the first team trains (Houston Sports Park) and travel to play their home matches in Bryan. This structure will allow the Cavalry players to be exposed to a professional environment during their time with the Dynamo.

These college players will not be available for the game Tuesday though, so the first round match in Laredo presents an opportunity for the Academy to shine. “We don’t get our first player in until the 5th of May, so the 19’s will play in the first Open Cup game…but what an experience for those guys.” commented Bundy in the podcast interview.

The Dynamo Academy U-19’s, though much younger and less experienced then the international roster of the Heat, bring a level of continuity that Laredo doesn’t enjoy, given the short period of time the Heat have been together. The U-19 squad is in the middle of its U.S. Development Academy season and sits in fourth place of the Frontier Division with a 10-7-2 record. The team is also coming off a recent Finals appearance in the prestigious Dr. Pepper Dallas Cup U19 bracket, where they lost on penalties.

The Academy U-19 squad has a handful of players who played for the Cavalry during last year’s PDL season. Jalen Anderson, Jesse Ortiz and Heriberto Soto played multiple games for the Cavalry in 2018, Ortiz and Soto both featured in the opening round loss in the PDL playoffs. Anderson and Soto were the goal scorers in the Dallas Cup Final loss. The current roster also includes two players who have been promoted within the Dynamo system. Defender Eric McCue signed a professional contract with the Dynamo in the offseason, but continues to play for the Academy until the end of their season. Goalkeeper Osmar Chavero recently signed an amateur Academy contract with RGV FC. A number of the U-19’s occasionally train with the first team Dynamo, so will have been exposed to more experienced and professional players in these training sessions.

The First Round U.S. Open Cup match between Laredo Heat and Brazos Valley Cavalry will be played in Laredo at the Texas A&M International University Soccer Complex (also the home for Laredo Heat NPSL matches) Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. CDT. The match will be live-streamed on the ESPN Plus streaming service. The winner of this match will advance to play USL’s San Antonio FC in the Open Cup Second Round at San Antonio’s Toyota Field next week.