Our look at football in America continues as there are plenty more clubs to talk about here on TEB so we kick off 2018 by taking a look at Houston Dynamo from the MLS.
In the States, clubs can move to different cities and Houston is one those clubs that relocated. They started out when Major League Soccer (MLS) was created and the San Jose Clash, eventually changing their name to the Earthquakes.
In 2005, the Earthquakes left California after not being able to secure a stadium specifically for football. Since moving to Houston, they won back to back MLS Titles in 2006 and 2007, and finished runners up 2011 and 2012.
I sat down with Matt Markstone, a California based Houston Dynamo fan to find out more about the franchise.
Q. How did you come to follow the Houston Dynamo?
It is a bit of a long story. It goes back to Craig Biggio, the former catcher, second baseman, and outfielder for the Houston Astros. When I was younger, and an avid baseball fan, I fell in love with the way he played the game. I did not realise at the time he was almost six foot, but I knew he was smaller than most of the guys he played with. Given that I am not blessed with an immense amount of height, and I also caught and played second base and outfield, I gravitated towards watching and somewhat idolising him. I am not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point in the mid nineties I fell in love not just with Biggio, but with the Astros as a whole. My father was a Dodger’s fan, and maybe it had something to do with their divorce, but at some point I just decided that Biggio and the Astros were my team.
Fast forward almost fifteen years. Long after anything resembling a baseball playing career was over, college and graduate school done, career in hand, married, with children. I was at a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, grading world history exams. I was going out to get coffee on one of our breaks and a guy I did not know, wearing one of the most god-awful jerseys I had ever seen, came up and started in on me about how much better FC Dallas were than the Dynamo.
At this point I had never watched a football game. Not one. But as soon as I got away from the guy, I googled “Houston Football Team” and saw the jersey and the name. I then spent my lunch hour looking around for anyone else in Houston, and I saw someone in a long-sleeved, shiny, Greenstar Energy logo jersey. I sat down and explained what had happened, and he simply pointed to the stars above the crest and told me to go back to the FC Dallas guy and look really closely for any stars. There were, and still are, none. The FC Dallas guy and I are actually really good friends now, but that is how I became a Dynamo fan.
Q. The Dynamo are not one of those clubs that spend massive amounts of money on (old) foreign players, what can you tell us about the Designated Players (DP) or the forward line?
Houston has plenty of veteran leadership in the squad, with DaMarcus Beasley, AJ Delagarza, former Arsenal defender Philippe Senderos, but they have chosen, in recent years anyway, to spend their DP money on bringing in younger attacking players. Cubo Torres was one of them, but in the middle of writing this he has been sold to PUMAS in Liga MX, and given the Dynamo some more money to play with as they prepare for the upcoming season.
The current DP’s, Alberth Elis and Tomas Martinez both play in attacking roles. People may remember Elis from World Cup qualifying, although it was his Houston and Honduran teammate Romell Quioto who scored the only goal for Honduras during the Hex.
Ellis and Martinez are both young (21 and 22 respectively) and have lots of time and opportunity to grow. For now, it is the pace of Ellis playing out wide that is his biggest attribute. Most games he looks fearless as he attacks and runs at defenders, giving the Dynamo an out ball if necessary and helping make the counter attack a legitimate threat. Even though Cubo has moved on this off-season, the front line of Manotas, Quioto, Ellis will give defenses across the MLS something to worry about in the season (and hopefully seasons) to come.
Q. Erik Torres – he is a well thought of player in the States, but divides opinion. What is your view on him?
Torres brings mixed feelings for me. His initial transfer to the club and attitude since his arrival has been questioned at times but he was one of the reasons why I was attracted Houston in the first place. His commitment to the cause, his team-first mentality, the fact he played his entire career for one professional team, never had his head turned and has come back after his playing career to work at the club, the two could not be more different. It may not be a popular opinion, but I would take a more committed player of lesser quality over a guy who puts himself ahead of the team. That said, he had a decent season.
He started the 2016/17 season as hot as anyone, scoring seemingly at will and netting six goals in his first four matches. The hype-train was in full effect. Only being able to follow on social media and scores and highlights, he looked great. He seemed to be focused and like he was going to be the player we were hoping for. But, when you look at how many goals came from the penalty spot and his discipline record over that stretch, it was clear that the numbers were inflated and we were going to need to find goals elsewhere in the squad, and not rely solely on Cubo to get the job done.
In fairness to Cubo, fourteen goals is not terrible, it is just nowhere near the pace he started off with. He was involved in seventeen goals for the Dynamo last season, most of any player on the team. He will be missed, but he is not irreplaceable going forward.
Q. What have the last five seasons been like for the Dynamo?
The past few seasons have been a bit of a struggle for the Dynamo. After starting off well after the move to Houston, winning two MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007 and making the play-offs five of the next six years, the Dynamo went through a period of shifting conferences and failing to qualify for the play-offs in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
I remember watching the end of the 2011 and 2012 play-offs and watching them fall to LA Galaxy in back-to-back championships. The 2011 final was my first real encounter with the club as a supporter or a fan.
The 2013 season saw the club finish fourth in the Eastern conference and fall to Sporting Kansas City in the Conference finals. That was the last season the club truly played well. 2014, 2015, and 2016 were all pretty dismal. The Dynamo finished eighth in the conference in 2014 and 2015, and failed to qualify for the play-offs. Then came 2016, which saw Owen Coyle lead the team to a tenth place conference finish, only winning seven games in the process. The team was fairly dreadful going forward. Perhaps the saddest part of it all was the departure of club captain and US international Brad Davis, who was traded to Sporting KC and the summer trade of Giles Barnes to the Whitecaps. It was those two players who most causal fans would have recognised, and their contributions were missed.
It was clear the team needed rebuilding in 2016, when the club managed a return of just one point a match. In late October, Wilmer Cabrera was installed as manager in place of Owen Coyle, who had failed to take the team forward in his time at the club, and the process began almost immediately. With Cabrera, a coach with MLS and US Youth International experience, the club looked to move forward, and despite its disappointing road record in 2017, managed to get to the conference finals before being dismissed by the Seattle Sounders, 5-0 over two legs.
In truth, it has been a good (and somewhat surprising) year and the team is heading in the right direction, in my opinion. Young midfielders supplemented alongside veterans Ricardo Clark, Boniek Garcia, and Vincent Sanchez, and the attacking threats of Torres, Quioto, Ellis, Manotas and American Andrew Wenger (#wengerin) forced teams to respect the counter-attack. The team scored 57 goals during the season, second only to the Portland Timbers, who finished the regular season first in the conference. Coming off of that season, there are reasonably high expectations going into 2018.
Q. How do they line up on the pitch?
Wilmer Cabrera has changed the style of play considerably during his short time in charge. With the departure of Will Bruin the Dynamo stopped trying to hold the ball up and build through possession. Cabrera focused on solidifying the defence and remaining compact, then springing the counter attack through Alex, Ellis, Torres, and Quioto. The pace in the front three is remarkable, especially from the wide-players who attack and run at defenders in an almost reckless manner.
With a veteran backline and holding midfield players, and guys like Alex who can make decisive passes to set Ellis and Quioto away, it does not take long for the Dynamo to go from the hands of Tyler Deric to the back of the opponents net.
Q. What is your best eleven since you have been a fan?
Well, I missed Stu Holden’s time at the club, or I would slot him in, but here we go… and bring on the criticism. I am going 4-1-4-1, but guys are going to get shoehorned in a bit.
De La garza, Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell, DeMarcus Beasely
Ellis, Barnes, Alex, Brad Davis (c)
Q. You live in California but root for teams outside the State – how hard is it for you to see the Dynamo live or get to matches?
I watched as much as I could the first few years, but it was rather difficult to get access to all of the matches and the time of day they normally played made it hard to justify watching them. I mostly follow through social media and podcasts now, and watch when they play on ESPN or Facebook. I especially like when they are ESPN and I can watch the full match replay after my kids are asleep (similar to the Premier League, which I watch before they are awake). I think the Dynamo are only scheduled to play one match on ESPN for the 2018 season, so I will rely on The Peel and Glenn Davis, Soccer Matters to keep me up-to-date with how the team are doing, for the most part.
As far as attending live matches, I will make the four hour trip to either LA or San Jose to see them once or twice a year, but that is as much as I can realistically do. With the addition of LAFC to the Western Conference it will add a few more opportunities to see them live. Currently looking at April 14 in San Jose, October 18 at LAFC, and October 28 at LA Galaxy as potential matches to attend.
Q. Fan support, how is it in Houston and online? What do you like about Dynamo fans?
The fans of the Dynamo, like those of the Astros, are great. With training getting started recently, the fans have been lining up to meet the new signings and give their support to the team. Whenever I have attended matches (always away, never been to BVBA Compass Stadium) the traveling fans have always been welcoming to me and vocal in their support of the club.
I think the fans in Houston get unfairly criticised sometimes for not selling out the stadium during the summer months. If you have ever been to Texas in the summer you will know that sitting in the sun midday is one of the most unpleasant things you will ever experience, and given the lack of meaning for some of the matches the Dynamo will play during the summer, it is not a surprise that many of the matches have relatively small crowds. There are also the fans that will travel to Frisco, and it is with them you can see the passion that the fans have. The support for the Dynamo is great, both in Houston and online, although they do not dominate the headlines as some clubs do.
Q. USA did not make it to World Cup Finals so what would you do if US Soccer Federation asked you to fix the sport in the country?
I am not sure I am even qualified to give an answer to this, but the first thing I would look to do is give more kids more access to qualified coaches at low or no cost to the kids and their families. Stories like that of Clint Dempsey driving for hours to get to club practice and the financial strain it brought about are great to look back on, and there is something to be said for the character that is built through struggle, but there are so many kids in the US who never get a shot. We are missing them and we are missing the chance to develop young athletes into players who can compete at the highest level. Too many kids are falling through the cracks because their parents do not have the money to put them on club teams, so I would just like to see everyone get access to quality coaching and have access to quality facilities as well.
Aside from that, I think the USSF just needs to consider what it wants to do long-term, look at a range of options on how to get there and go for it. Sometimes the off-the-wall approach is okay, the time under Jurgen Klinsmann was a dramatic change and time of much experimentation. But, the return to Bruce Arena might be too far back the other way. There is a balancing act of outside influence and borrowing of ideas from other countries and knowing what unique qualities the US possess need to be retained. I would look not just to make the 2022 World Cup, but to build a programme that will ensure we will not miss another one for the foreseeable future.
Q. And finally, tell us about yourself, your podcast and where we can find you.
My name is Matthew Markstone, and I am a converted baseball fan. I am an avid fan of Southampton, Houston Dynamo, Houston Astros, Houston Rockets, and Dash from my home on California’s central coast. I teach history at a local high school, have two kids who have chosen football over baseball, a wife who supports me in my never ending quest to do everything better, and enjoy a fair bit of kettlebell lifting.
I also host and produce a podcast name the “Southampton Dellivery,” and it is dedicated to the club and fans. It is truly a passion of mine and has really made me feel like I’m a part of the fanbase that is thousands of miles away. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts, on the website and you can get in touch on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook. You can also send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.