MLS Spotlight: Ex-Arsenal defender Senderos capitalizing on Houston Dynamo gamble

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The Swiss center back may have played just two regular season games, but he's been key in a surprising run to the Western Conference final

Given the circumstances, few people would have been surprised if Philippe Senderos had settled into a nice rotation role with the Houston Dynamo.

The former Arsenal defender had been out of contract since the end of the Scottish Premiership season, having played just three league games with Rangers in the 2016-17 campaign. His last game action came in a Scottish Cup match in February.

Senderos then signed with the Dynamo in August, joining a team that had surprised under new coach Wilmer Cabrera. Given that he was new to the league, country and continent, it was no shock he did not see his first action until September.

But Senderos did not come to Houston to ride the pine.

"If you’re a competitor, you don’t come over to stay on the bench," Senderos told Goal. "Obviously I was going to come in and try to fight for my place and play as many games as possible.

"If I can help the team, which I know I can, I can get some playing time. But there were many other factors. I just wanted to work hard and fight for my place."

Those factors proved to be injuries. The Dynamo lost right back A.J. DeLaGarza to an ACL tear on the last day of the season. That shifted center back Adolfo Machado to DeLaGarza's position for the knockout round contest against Sporting Kansas City and opened up a spot for Senderos.

Philippe Senderos quote gfx

Things got even trickier when fellow center back Leonardo went down 41 minutes in. But Senderos and his teammates didn’t just persevere — they thrived, shutting out Sporting KC over 120 minutes en route to a 1-0 win.

The Dynamo then held the league’s fourth-best attack to one goal over 180 minutes, recording an upset victory over the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference semifinals.

It’s success that Senderos is quick to attribute to the whole team.

"We’ve been trying to do a solid job defensively and I think it’s a credit to every single one of us at the back, and even in the team [everyone] has understood what it’s going to take and what we needed to do to win games," Senderos said.

And the 32-year-old would know what is necessary — he’s seen pressurized situations before.

Senderos played in the Premier League for a decade, spending time with Arsenal, Fulham, Everton and Aston Villa. He also spent a season in Serie A with AC Milan, part of a season in La Liga with Valencia, his aforementioned season in Scotland, and time in his native Switzerland.

And besides those domestic leagues and their cups, he has played in the Champions League and Europa League. Internationally, he played in three World Cups for Switzerland and wouldn’t say no to a fourth if the opportunity arose.

Philippe Senderos Fulham

It’s a resume that brings knowledge of most types of situations — and an expanded vocabulary. Senderos speaks six languages, and that’s helped him mesh well with his Dynamo teammates and help organize the back line.

"The fact that I’ve been in many different places, I’ve had to adapt and that’s helped," Senderos said. "I wish I’d stayed in one place the whole time, but sometimes life has different plans for you. So I’ve had to adapt and people here have been great with me and I’ve been welcomed here with open arms."

While it's a match that has worked out for all involved, it wasn't necessarily destined to be that way when Senderos initially linked up with the Dynamo on trial in July.

"That’s not normal that you bring a veteran with three World Cups to try out," Cabrera said. "He took that risk and when you take that risk it’s because (he is) humble enough to understand, despite what he was doing, he had some injuries and difficulties to play lately and that it was a little bit of doubt."

The two sides made a positive impression on one another. For Senderos, he was impressed with the facilities and coaching staff. For Cabrera, Senderos’ wealth of experience proved too tantalizing an opportunity to pass up.

"He’s an excellent player," Cabrera said. "Experienced, playing in three World Cups, Europe for different clubs. So he has brought that experience, that communication, which is important, and he’s been a leader on the field and off the field. That is the reason we wanted to bring him (in) and work with him."

Latif Blessing Philippe Senderos Sporting KC Houston Dynamo MLS

Summing up Senderos, Dynamo general manager Matt Jordan described him as "steady, solid, experienced and composed."

"We’ve been pleased he’s been able to step in and that’s been the story of our team," Jordan told Goal. "We have a very deep group, so that’s been a real positive. There hasn’t been a lot of drop-off. Maybe if one guy’s not able to play, then the next guy’s been able to step in.

"We were pleased he was able to step into a really tough environment and have a pretty smooth transition. It speaks a lot to his experience and his leadership qualities. It’s not easy to transition and come into a team in the middle of an MLS season."

He will need call upon that experience and composure as the Dynamo face an uphill battle to make the MLS Cup. Yet a date with the reigning champion Sounders doesn’t faze Senderos, who says the Dynamo are going to go play with "nothing to lose."

Being unfazed by the stakes isn’t surprising considering his past, and the fact he came halfway around the world to take a chance on an unknown situation.

But it’s a situation that has worked out well. While he is uncertain whether this will be his only year in MLS, the league has lived up to his expectations and delivered on a memorable run.

"I knew when I was coming in we had an important run-in before the playoffs," Senderos said. "We needed to get the results before so we’d make the playoffs. We achieved that.

"I was lucky enough to be able to help out and bring my qualities to the team. That was very good and now we’ve done tremendously in the playoffs and we’re in the conference finals. It’s an exciting time to be in Houston and to play for the Dynamo."

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