Dynamo 2020 Season Home Opener in a Pre-Pandemic World-February 29, 2020

It has not been easy to be a Houston Dynamo fan in the last seven years. To say the prognosticators don’t see anything changing this year is an understatement.

MLSsoccer.com experts 2021 finish predictions for the Dynamo:

  • Charles Boehm: 10th in West
  • Tom Bogert: 12th in West
  • Susannah Collins: 13th in West
  • Matthew Doyle: 12th in West
  • Sam Jones: 10th in West
  • Michael Lahoud: 9th in West
  • Joe Lowery: 12th in West
  • Jillian Sakovits: 10th in West
  • Greg Seltzer: 13th in West
  • Steve Zakuani: 9th in West

“It will still probably be a rough season for Houston, but hopefully, this time around, they find the pieces to actually build upon.” Adam Snavely-The Athletic Soccer

“Even with their offseason upgrades, the Dynamo have the look of a club that’ll be lucky to make the playoffs, not one that’ll charge to the top of the table.” Matt Doyle-mlssoccer.com

“In the second year of the Tab Ramos era, little about the on-field product feels radically different from a side which finished 2020 at the bottom of the conference…On paper, it’s a full step or more behind the majority of the talent on-hand at their conference rivals.” Jeff Reuter-The Athletic Soccer 

OK. Enough, we get the message.

These predictions are painful for Houston Dynamo fans to see heading into another season….and make no mistake about it; I count myself as one of those fans. Though I support all Texas soccer teams at all levels, I don’t hide the fact that the Dynamo are my Club and, despite the fact I now live in Austin FC’s geographic empire, the Dynamo will always be my Club. Until the pandemic shut me down, I have made multiple 6-hour round trips from the Texas Hill Country with my son as season ticket members since we moved here in 2012 to demonstrate our loyalty and passion.

The good news is that apparently, some in the Dynamo have noticed the less than stellar reviews and are not pleased. Tab Ramos had this to say at the media availability on Wednesday.

“We want to prove ourselves, I think many of the league’s predictions, they are picking us to be last, and that’s a chip on our shoulder. That is something that you want to carry, something that motivates you every day, and you want to come out and show that you are much better than what people outside of here may think.” 

I hope he is right, and the Club proves the doubters wrong. Tonight the Dynamo open their 16th season when they face San Jose at BBVA Stadium in Houston. Ahead of the opener, I have a few random, some critical, thoughts on my mind about the Dynamo to share.  I don’t usually do these stream-of-consciousness articles, but they are generally about the Dynamo when they come.  The last was the piece I wrote a few years ago about their participation in the Concacaf Champions League. This was written before the 2019 Quarterfinal series against Tigres, and nothing that happened in that series would make this Top 5-in fact those matches are best forgotten. Nothing like having your home stadium be taken over by visiting fans.

Until Proven Otherwise, the 2021 Consensus Predictions are Fair Guesses

The Dynamo have done little in the last seven years to justify optimistic predictions for this season. One playoff appearance since 2013. A Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Championship in 2018 that should be celebrated but accepted for what it was. Amid a miserable season, a great accomplishment that included about as favorable a draw throughout the entire tournament as possible. Last season showed some promise early, especially the breathtaking win at Sporting Kansas City shortly after the season resumed last August. After Alberth Elis was transferred to Boavista last September, though, the season might as well have ended. Two days later, the Dynamo were humiliated in Chicago, and it became apparent how dependent the attack was on Elis when they finished the rest of the season 1-8-3.

The Dynamo have made some good offseason additions, and they seem on paper to be a better squad.  Tim Parker should be a significant step up from the center defense choices available last year. More depth, speed, and defensive ability have been added on the wings and in the midfield. I am very interested to see what young Argentinian forward Mateo Bajamich can bring to the team. The remainder of the additions were not critical parts of the teams they played with last year or, in some cases like Derrick Jones, have not realized their potential.

Their one Designated Player, Darwin Quintero, is still working his way into fitness, is 33 years old, and has a professional career that extends back to the first year of the Dynamo’s existence. He was a bright light in an otherwise bad year for the Dynamo last year, but it is unclear what position he will play in Tab Ramos’s 4-3-3 system. I suspect he can be a significant contributor again this year, even if it is as a game-changing substitute. The other two DP’s from 2020, Elis and Mauro Manotas, are gone, and it is unclear how the 75 goals they scored while with the Dynamo will be replaced.

They are certainly much deeper in the attacking positions this year than last. Hopefully, a goals-by-committee approach will produce enough offense to give them a chance. The defense is dependent on Parker to provide the leadership that has been lacking. What can we expect from the Dynamo in 2021? A few weeks ago, Glenn Davis, on his Soccer Matters Facebook page, shared, “Think sum of the parts here and a collective mindset.” This practical approach may be a good way to view the Dynamo this year, at least to stay in the playoff race until the roster can be reevaluated and possibly strengthened in the summer.

2021 also is the second year with Tab Ramos in charge, and to be fair, the challenges presented last year were a tough ask for any first-year coach. He has now had a chance to work with Matt Jordan to build a roster to fit his system. Ramos was quite revealing this week when he talked about the mindset he is trying to develop with his roster this year, saying, “what we have this year that we didn’t have as much last year is a very hard working team that is willing to do the dirty work.”

Sum of the parts, a strong work ethic, and a chip on their shoulder. If nothing else, I hope these qualities will make the Dynamo more competitive on the road this year, which has eluded them for a long time.

International DP’s not replaced

No international signings in the offseason

Matt Jordan has said that the Dynamo deliberately didn’t pursue international signings in the offseason and chose to use various other MLS acquisition options to strengthen the roster. My understanding from offseason comments he made is that this was primarily a function of the difficulty scouting and recruiting players in the current global pandemic.

Tab Ramos alluded to that this week. “I think we did a good job in this offseason using every MLS mechanism available. We made trades and used our draft and used (General Allocation Money) and (Targeted Allocation Money), all that stuff to change the team. So, yeah, we did a good job with that. We did not go outside our market.”

On the surface, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable strategy, but the other teams in the league did not seem to have the same concerns or issues. Looking at the two other Texas teams, Austin FC was able to bring in five international players, including two designated players. FC Dallas added a couple in the middle of the season last year, three more in the offseason and another who will arrive this summer. Outside of the acquisition of Bajamich (who stayed in Argentina) late last season, the Dynamo have curiously been absent from the international market.

I will leave it up to others to speculate why the Dynamo took such a conservative roster-building strategy in the offseason. I am not sure I understand the reasoning.

Ramos did leave the door open to add other pieces later this year in his media comments this week. “So we left ourselves with (open Designated Player) spots, we have an international spot open.

Last season there was speculation that the market would be favorable for MLS to bring in talented players at a discount. Except for the banner signing by FC Cincinnati of Brazilian forward Brenner, this wave of expensive new DP arrivals did not materialize in the offseason. MLS has introduced a new roster mechanism (yes, another one) to allow clubs to invest in young players to develop and potentially sell on in the future.  MLS teams are rumored to be actively looking to add DP’s and young players using the new roster mechanism this summer.  It remains to be seen if the Dynamo will spend to reenter the international transfer market in a meaningful way at that time also.

Soccer Starts At Home-Tom Byer

How much longer will it take for Homegrown players to make an impact

Since their Development Academy began operations in 2007, the Dynamo have never figured out how to produce first-team players who can play meaningful minutes. Tyler Deric was an early success story, but he wasn’t with the Academy long. Memo Rodriguez has been a pleasant surprise, but it took him getting released before he began his rise back to his key role in the current roster. Other than that, the results aren’t there. A few years after Matt Jordan arrived as GM, he commented that the Academy needed to be rebuilt from the ground up essentially, and the focus shifted to the younger age groups. Paul Holocher joined to rebuild the Academy, and there appears to be a promising group of young players coming through now. The U13’s won the most recent Dallas Cup at their age level.

Holocher has done an excellent job of rebuilding frayed links to the local youth soccer community, with excellent collaborative educational coaching programs as an example. The Dynamo and Dash work with Tom Byer, and his Soccer Starts at Home project is a perfect way to provide long-term grassroots soccer leadership to local clubs and schools and build a more profound presence in the community.

So the future looks brighter, but 2021 looks to be another season with limited contributions from the Academy system to the first team. Erik McCue and Marcelo Palomino have joined USL Championship Clubs on loan. Nico Lemoine saw minutes last year, but the added depth up front may limit his time on the field this season. The other players from the Academy on the roster are young and will hopefully get minutes on loan somewhere. For Dynamo fans, it is frustrating every year to see how ridiculously successful the Academy system of their rivals, FC Dallas, has been. Another year of development will hopefully bring the Dynamo closer to generating success.

Is the Club for sale or not

Houston soccer fans were highly fortunate to luck into a championship-caliber team when the previous version of the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston and became the Dynamo in 2005. That was a unique team in a different time in MLS’s history, so it isn’t realistic to pine for those glory days. In retrospect, the incredible success of those teams between 2006 and 2013 had sort of a high water covers all stumps feel. The opening of BBVA Stadium in 2012, six years after the Club began play at Robertson Stadium, brought a beautiful centrally located stadium. Still, it also changed the dynamics of the fan experience and alienated a portion of the fan base used to Robertson and its low ticket prices. I also remember the hopes fans had when Gabriel Brener bought the controlling interest in the Dynamo from AEG in 2015. The belief was that the Dynamo would stand on their own, bring in big-name stars and not play second fiddle to the other AEG-owned team at the time, the LA Galaxy. Unfortunately, that dream hasn’t materialized.

I have watched as Austin FC has done almost everything right, in building their organization leading up to this weekend’s first match. I attended their expansion announcement in January of 2019 and, at that time, wondered where the Dynamo would be now if they had two years to build and launch their Club, instead of the 4-months they had leading up to the first match in 2006. Unfortunately, once the winning stopped, the shallowness of the support became apparent, and the Dynamo slipped into irrelevance in the Houston sports landscape. The Club didn’t help themselves on many levels either in this process.  Attendance cratered in 2019, and at times announced attendance significantly overstated the number of people my eyeballs told me actually were in the stadium. I shudder to think what the attendance would look like if the stadium were fully open to start this season.

In the offseason, the Club delivered a rebrand, adding FC to the end of the Dynamo name and introducing a new crest and marketing program. I don’t have any problem with the new crest and look. I am not sure why they felt the need to add FC to the name, especially when they didn’t do the same thing for the Dash, but I am happy they didn’t change the base name or colors. Marketing people doing marketing things, but I suspect all this activity had little impact on creating more relevance in the community.

So, we come to the rumors about the Club being for sale in some form or another. Jeff Reuter from the Athletic Soccer reaffirmed this week in a Q&A that he believes the Club is for sale, saying “we wouldn’t have reported on it if our sourcing wasn’t confident that there was serious interest to sell.” Other publications and reporters have said the same thing. Unfortunately, two other MLS teams are supposedly for sale, and there are likely more expansion franchises on the way that may be more attractive than the Dynamo. I would hope that if Gabriel Brener is selling the team, that a local majority owner can be found, something the Dynamo has never enjoyed. I am not sure this “white whale” exists. I suspect if they did, they would have surfaced and purchased the team back when AEG was selling its interests.

Regardless of what happens with a potential sale, I don’t have high hopes that much will change with the Club unless there is new ownership. A majority owner who takes a much more active public leadership role in the community than the Dynamo’s current owner. One who is also willing to spend to build a roster that is at a level commensurate with what a team in the eighth largest media market deserves.

I will be watching remotely this year. Because of my age and the pandemic, I will not be in stadiums this year. Unfortunately, this means I will miss the home opener tonight, the first I will not have seen since the Club’s founding in 2006.  Missing this match is disappointing but a small thing when put in perspective of changes in the world since the Dynamo home opener in 2020. I remain optimistic that the team will be better this year, but if the pundits are correct and the season is a struggle, there are always the memories, even if pining for the glory days is a mistake.

If you are in the stadium tonight, please enjoy it, and I look forward to rejoining you there one day soon.