Culture change paying early dividends for Cabrera and the Dynamo

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Ninety minutes under its new boss has Houston feeling something new: hope.

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When the Houston Dynamo hit the reset button last season, there was a question about what direction the organization would take.

Houston had dropped off significantly from its days as an MLS Cup contender. The Dynamo last made the playoffs in 2013. The team is four years removed from its last MLS Cup appearance. There was a movement to retain interim coach Wade Barrett, who had tried to milk the most he could out of a roster with too many holes.

Instead, the Dynamo opted to shake things up and hire Wilmer Cabrera, who was coaching its USL side. It felt like Houston glanced at its neighbors in Texas, FC Dallas, and realized there was a model for success there. Cabrera has a similar philosophy to his countryman and friend, Oscar Pareja, for whom he was an assistant in Colorado. The thinking includes playing and developing younger players, and adding a touch of Latin influence, both in the roster and in the style of play.

In Dallas, Pareja and Fernando Clavijo have followed those beliefs to build the best team in MLS. The hope is that Cabrera can replicate that program in Houston.

After just one game, it’s far, far too early to call anything a success or a failure. Yet the changes that are taking place in the basic identity of the franchise were quite clear in the opening weekend of the MLS season as Houston shocked the defending champion Seattle Sounders with a 2-1 win.

Wilmer wants the team to have the ability to attack. We’re going to set ourselves up so that we can do that … That’s the basis of the philosophy, and that’s how we plan on moving forward with this.

- Ricardo Clark

It wasn’t about the result. It was the manner in which Houston played, an up-tempo, counter-attacking system featuring truly dynamic players in the front line of a 4-3-3 lineup. As Cabrera said when he was hired, “I like to take risks.” It was a pretty good first impression.

Hondurans Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto flanked Mexican Designated Player Cubo Torres, who had fallen well short of expectations during his time in Houston. Torres scored his first goal in Houston’s orange jersey. Quioto added a brilliant winner. Houston peppered Seattle with 16 shots. The team had just 35 percent possession, but it was happy to be dangerous in the counter, where Elis and Quioto could get out and run.

It didn’t take long to see that this Houston team has the potential to be one of the more exciting attacking teams to watch in MLS. The performance reinforced some of what Cabrera hoped to see from his team in the first game of the season, and it was a sign that the club has taken those instructions on early in the process.

“Things seem to be coming together,” Dynamo captain Ricardo Clark told FourFourTwo. “I think we’ve been taking the right approaches since the whole change has happened. Preseason was very positive. Wilmer has a playing style, a philosophy that he wants to bring to the team, and so far, guys have been responding to that.

“Preseason is all about building chemistry. Even the early part of the season is about building chemistry, especially with a team so new. It was a good start, that was a positive, and we put a lot of things into that game that Wilmer wanted us to do. So far we’ve taken the right approaches to put us in a spot to do well.”

The philosophy must first be imprinted on the first team. From there, the next steps will be for that style to trickle down into every aspect of the organization, and especially the academy. Houston should be able to foster an academy pipeline that produces professionals. They’ve had just three in franchise history, including Christian Lucatero, who has yet to make his MLS debut. If FC Dallas is the model, the Dynamo need to see more academy products coming through the first team.

It’s an area where Cabrera has plenty of experience, first coaching the U.S. under-17 national team for five years, and last year serving as coach of Houston’s USL team, the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros. Promoting Cabrera internally showed there was at least some thought to taking advantage of the knowledge gained from the USL level, including the work that needs to be done to create a clear path from the academy to RGVFC to the first team.

There are also areas that must improve after the first game of the season. Houston will want to hold the ball more than it did against Seattle, especially at home. It’ll also need to be very good in the back line if it tries to stretch the field vertically. The roster building must also continue, enhancing the depth through every line.

Houston is showing positive signs already, though. Quioto and Elis are dynamic, skillful attackers willing to go at defenders. Torres has shown he can be an exciting forward when he’s finishing. Their job, Clark said, is to inject energy into the games and to score goals. Players like Clark, Leonardo, AJ DeLaGarza and DaMarcus Beasley will all play important roles in organizing the supporting cast.

“We want to get back into winning habits,” Clark said. “Wilmer wants the team to have the ability to attack. We’re going to set ourselves up so that we can do that with the personalities he brought in, the wingers and forwards, and all of the players around them are going to support them. Hopefully, they’ll get that opportunity to do that, to get forward and express themselves and score goals for us. That’s the basis of the philosophy, and that’s how we plan on moving forward with this.”

At the very least, the Dynamo looks like a team that is going to be fun to watch.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.