A successful Cup run is more alchemy than science. You need to get the balance right – between young and old, experienced and hungry, determined and patient, scoring and defending. Then you need to hope things go your way. Houston Dynamo walked the tightrope brilliantly in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, reaching their first Final with aging Swiss defender Philippe Senderos providing the yin to young Colombian striker Mauro Manotas’ yang.
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“Sure, I try to give some advice to the younger guys in the team and help them learn from my experiences, but mostly I just try to be myself every single day. That’s the best guidance I can give,” said Senderos, 33 years old and a veteran of three World Cups with his native Switzerland. He’s seen it all and done it all with Arsenal, AC Milan, Valencia, Fulham and many more ports of call in an extensive and expansive career. “I’m not here to be a school teacher; I’m here to do a job. I do like to talk and organize things at the back, but I’m not here to give lessons. I just do my best and hope that rubs off.”
(Senderos' experience brought the Dynamo's Cup run to another level)
Senderos, the son of a Serb and a Spaniard, is a wily old pro. In all of the five languages he speaks fluently, he’s gruff and to-the-point. He’s not one to toot his own horn, but his experience – which includes an FA Cup title in his breakout season with Arsenal and a Champions league Final with AC Milan – matters much to the young ones in this Houston side. They watch him like hawks, taking silent notes during training and paying attention to the way the big center-back carries himself. “He gives advice if you ask,” said 22-year-old Colombian Mauro Manotas, who speaks with his captain in Spanish as his English is still a work in progress. “But everything [Senderos] does on and off the field is incredible. I can’t thank him for the things he teaches me.”
Young & Old – High Expectations
The balance in the squad goes beyond just old man Senderos and young-gun Manotas, who’s had a breakout 2018. But Manotas’ performances have been notable. He was already the Dynamo’s top-scorer in Open Cup history when he scored his 17th goal in MLS league play to break the club’s scoring record in a calendar year. And now, heading into Houston’s first Open Cup Final, his four goals in the four previous games have him just one off 2018 top marksmen Diego Rossi (LAFC) and David Ochoa (Miami United FC). A goal in Wednesday’s Final against Philadelphia Union will likely see the livewire striker finish with a share of the tournament’s top-scorer crown.
Head coach Wilmer Cabrera, a former boss with the Dynamo’s youth academy and also Houston’s USL affiliate Rio Grande Valley Toros, has also blooded Memo Rodriguez (22) and a host of other youngsters in the 2018 Open Cup. Instead of crumbling under the heavy pressure of one-and-done competition, they’ve excelled under the tutelage of a demanding and exacting leader like Senderos who, alongside captain DaMarcus Beasley (36) and seasoned campaigner Oscar Boniek Garcia (34) form a veteran core in the Dynamo side.
“This year we took a different approach to the Open Cup,” said Manotas “Usually the Cup has been a way for young players who haven’t been getting minutes to get some important time on the field, but this time we wanted to win it all. We have the drive to win. We are eager for it and giving it our all.”
(Mauro Manotas' winner against Minnesota United made him the Dynamo's top all-time scorer in the Open Cup)
Manotas’ words aren’t just the bluster of youth. There’s a winning mentality in the team and although they’re off the pace in the MLS’ Western Conference and likely to miss the post-season play-offs, they’re definitely up for the Cup with a one-off, winner-take-all Final on Wednesday, their fifth straight home game of the competition. “A Cup run like this is the kind of thing that keeps a team going and we’re into the thick of it now,” said Senderos, back to full fitness after a three-year stretch of injury woes that might have seen lesser men hang up their boots and retreat to the beach.”
“A Cup is about as simple as it gets – you just need to keep winning,” added the defender, the second-oldest player in the squad behind former U.S. National Team standout Beasley. Senderos’ experience is such that he’s lined up in over 20 Cups in six different countries. “Winning becomes a habit. You get a win or two under your belt and you try to keep that momentum going. You roll it into the next game and you try to keep that winning habit going on. That’s how you climb through the rounds and keep the momentum. That’s the most important thing.”
The goals – those are important too. Manotas, who sat out the 5-0 win against amateurs NTX Rayados in the Fourth Round, has provided them for a second straight Open Cup. Stepping into the gap left by the exit of Erick Cubo Torres at the start of the season, a lot has been asked of the youngster barely in his twenties. But he’s answered the call and then some. “El Profe [Coach Cabrera] is like a father to me here and he’s given me the opportunity to be the starting center forward,” said Manotas, who insists that among Coach Cabrera’s many attributes is his ability to make every player feel important. “I’ve paid him back with goals and good performances and I want to keep doing that.”
Goals. Momentum. Youth. Experience. Houston built up the kind of Cup balance that, with that little bit of extra luck – like a friendly coin in the hosting tosses – has taken them all the way and within striking distance of a first title since a pair of MLS Cups they won in 2006 and 2007. Even Senderos, as hardened a veteran as you’re likely to find, is feeling it. “This is an exciting team to watch and an exciting team to be a part of,” said the defender. “We have a lot of talent going forward and we play a lot more with the ball this year than we did last year.”
(Wilmer Cabrera has found the right blend of youth and experience in a run to this year's Open Cup Final)
Senderos is caught up in the whole thing. He’s feeling young again playing his soccer in Texas – a place he never dreamed he’d be. “Football’s funny; it can take you all over the world and surprise you,” said the player nearing his career’s twilight. “And here it’s exciting. The young guys in the team, the way we’re playing. We’ve got people from many different backgrounds and places [11 different nationalities are represented in the Dynamo squad]. The atmosphere here – off the field and on – has been really important.”
Manotas feels it too. “The relationships off the field in this team are really pretty amazing,” said the striker who’s having one of those seasons that makes opposing coaches – like Philly Union boss Jim Curtin – begin to take notice. “When you’re able to be friends off the field, when you jump on the field you can bond even more. With that combination of experience and youth, this is a really good thing.”
Dynamo Up for the Cup
While Manotas secretly watches Senderos in training, tracking his every more, the Swiss captain is slowing down a little. Bodies are bodies and years of soccer and travel and training take a toll. It’s the way of things. But you’d never know to hear it from him, or by his current form. “I try to get better and to compete every day,” he said, defiant and inspired by the vigor of his younger Dynamo teammates. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old. You have to have that mentality – that wanting to get better and do better. You have to be hungry. The day you stop being hungry, that’s the day it’s over.”
(Scoring isn't his bread & butter, but Senderos has hit the back of the net in 2018 too)
It’s not over yet for the Dynamo. They’re 90 or 120-plus minutes away from a first Open Cup crown, and a first trophy of any kind in over a decade. And if they can spin good vibes and Cup momentum into goals on Wednesday, that dream might become a reality. “I’m still playing football and that’s the thing that makes me happiest,” said Senderos, in a moment of openness, talking about the game he’s loved since he was a boy. His teammate Manotas, ten years his junior, is feeling dreamy too: “I let myself imagine winning the Cup. It serves as motivation. In this life, you have to dream in order to win.”