The Houston Dynamo took a step back.
In Wilmer Cabrera's debut season as head coach, the Dynamo made the playoffs and rode their luck to the conference finals. Last year, the Dynamo didn't get into the postseason, salvaging the year with a U.S. Open Cup title that means a spot in the Concacaf Champions League.
The first game of that competition takes place Tuesday in Guatemala with a potential showdown with Tigres looming in the quarterfinals should the Dynamo get past Guastatoya and Tigres dispatch Saprissa. The quick start to the year has put pressure on Cabrera and his staff to figure out not only how to put together a roster that can compete internationally but also one that is ready for MLS play.
"We’re trying to figure out the best way possible to do preseason but also to be sure that we’re very well prepared for the first games. We’re trying to do that, and we think the results will tell us if we did the right thing," the 51-year-old coach told Goal.
There is no question where the Dynamo's weak point lies. Despite scoring 58 goals last season, they conceded just as many and ended the year with a goal difference of 0. They also switched off late in games too often, with the Houston heat that so often has looked to weigh down oppositions at times looking to hurt the home team as it slumped to six home losses a year after suffering just one setback at BBVA Compass Stadium.
"We wanted to be sure that in terms of having players that can give us a little bit more stability, what I’m saying is that we need them to be healthy and be sure they can play consecutive games - especially in the back. We’ve tried to bring in these guys that can give us that, and we’re thinking they’re going to be able to have that consistency," Cabrera said. "If we have that consistency with the consistency we have up front or on the attacking side - because we’ve been consistent in the attacking side. In two seasons, we’ve been very good at scoring goals.
"There’s no doubt that everyone knows that we score goals, but we have to create that balance. We’re working as a staff to be sure that we create that balance and we have better seasons and contain more the rivals’ attack."
If the Dynamo can do that, it could mean a return of the good times in Houston.
How did the Houston Dynamo perform in 2018?
2018 finish: Ninth in the Western Conference (10-16-8), missed playoffs. Won U.S. Open Cup.
It was a year of regression for the Dynamo after 2017's fourth-place finish. Injuries hit key contributors and Cabrera's side was nowhere near as tough to beat at home as it was during his first season as head coach of the club. The silver lining was the silverware the Dynamo added to the trophy case, beating the Philadelphia Union in the final to lift the U.S. Open Cup and secure a place in the Concacaf Champions League.
Houston Dynamo's key offseason losses
Center back Adolfo Machado moved to Bolivian club The Strongest after starting 18 matches for the Dynamo in 2018. That was a big dip from his initial season in Houston, and the club declined to pick up his option.
The Dynamo also lost Eric Alexander to FC Cincinnati in the expansion draft, while 2018 draft pick Mac Steeves left for the USL Championship after making few contributions in his rookie season.
No. 2 goalkeeper Chris Seitz was swapped to D.C. United in exchange for a draft pick.
The biggest name that was almost in this category was star winger Alberth Elis. The Honduran remains on the roster after rumors he was headed for Turkey - though Cabrera said the club may still be willing to sell should the right offer arrive.
"Alberth is a very important player because of what he does and what he’s been doing throughout the two seasons. Now, if there are possibilities that are convenient for the club and for Alberth, we’re going to be happy. I’m going to be happy," he said. "That’s what we want. We want players to have better futures and better possibilities. We’re open to doing that if that’s also convenient for the club, for the ownership group.
"The ownership group made an effort with Alberth when we brought Alberth from Monterrey. It was a financial effort from the club, trying to be sure that we have a very important player. Now, if something is a window or possibility for the club and for the player and it’s beneficial, I don’t have any doubt the club is going to try to do the right things for both."
Houston Dynamo's key offseason additions
The Dynamo sought out defensive help in the window, bringing in former Palermo center back Aljaz "Kiki" Struna and MLS veteran Maynor Figueroa. Both are internationals with their respective nations, though Figueroa will turn 35 this year and was used sparingly by FC Dallas last season.
"It’s going to take time, it’s not going to be one day because we have new guys in the back, but we believe it’s going to be a good solution first with the new guys and second with the continuity and them playing together for a longer period," Cabrera said of the center backs.
Marlon Hairston came to Houston from the Colorado Rapids in a swap for allocation money, while Tommy McNamara also joins from within the league. The former NYCFC midfielder was selected by the Dynamo in the re-entry draft.
Matias Vera, a central midfielder formerly of San Lorenzo who spent the last season in Chile with O'Higgins, was signed using TAM.
Full Houston Dynamo roster entering 2019 season
Goalkeepers: Tyler Deric, Michael Nelson, Joe Willis
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley, A.J. DeLaGarza, Chris Duvall, Maynor Figueroa, Alejandro Fuenmayor, Kevin Garcia, Sam Junqua, Adam Lundkvist, Eric McCue, Andrew Samuels, Kiki Struna
Midfielders: Eric Bird, Juan David Cabezas, Darwin Ceren, Brad Dunwell, Boniek Garcia, Marlon Hairston, Tomas Martinez, Tommy McNamara, Memo Rodriguez, Matias Vera
Forwards: Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas, Ronaldo Pena, Rommell Quioto
Houston Dynamo projected starting lineup
The Dynamo's attacking trio is settled, barring a team coming for Elis in the summer. Mauro Manotas tied for fourth in the league with 19 goals last season, while Elis added 11 goals. The Honduran international also was one of a trio of players with 10 or more assists last season, joined by countryman Romell Quioto and playmaker Tomas Martinez.
A healthy Juan David Cabezas should help the Dynamo a bit with their defense, though a back line with a left side made up of a 36-year-old and a 35-year-old may not inspire confidence. Alejandro Fuenmayor emerging as a starting option would be a boost for Houston, but in the preseason it's been Figueroa next to Struna in the center. A.J. DeLaGarza's return to fitness helps as well.
Joe Willis has started in preseason, but the battle for the No. 1 shirt isn't won. Tyler Deric will still challenge for the role, and they could trade off into the season.
Houston Dynamo's national TV coverage
- Houston Dynamo vs. San Jose Earthquakes - Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m. ET on Univision
- LA Galaxy vs. Houston Dynamo - Friday, April 19, at 10:30 p.m. ET on Unimas
- Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas - Saturday, May 4, at 3 p.m. ET on Univision
- Houston Dynamo vs. LAFC - Friday, July 12, at 9 p.m. ET on Unimas