Houston Dynamo’s Coco & the Making of a Modest Star

Panamanian sensation Adalberto Carrasquilla (aka ‘Coco’) has helped the Houston Dynamo dig out from a decade of disappointment and grab a place in the Open Cup Final against Messi’s Inter Miami.
By: Jonah Fontela

Adalberto Carrasquilla is having a year.

You can’t miss him for the Houston Dynamo, rushing through midfield like a stiff wind. He does the dirty work and the sublime stuff too, a thicket of wild curls drawing the eye toward him. And despite being a rising star for the league, his club and his country, the 24-year-old is humility personified. 

“We’re enjoying every game, and enjoying each other,” said the man known simply as ‘Coco’ in his native Panama and Houston, Texas – where his contributions have helped the Dynamo reach an Open Cup Final against a superstar-studded Inter Miami. “This makes us strong and so is the respect we have for each other in this team.”

USMNT fans should remember him. Carrasquilla was the best player on the field when his home country of Panama – where he’s become a bashful national icon – beat the Stars and Stripes in the Semifinal of this year’s Concacaf Gold Cup. His assist to Yoel Bárcenas, from deep in midfield, was a hint of things to come from a player on the rise – and up for even the biggest stages.

Gold Cup MVP on the Move

The reluctant star looked uncomfortable in the spotlight of center-stage when he collected the Gold Cup’s Top Player prize despite a slim loss in the Final to Mexico. He’s much more in his element when roaring forward and arriving in the box late on counter-attacking raids like he did in the Open Cup Semifinal against Real Salt Lake, scoring one of the best goals of this year’s later rounds. 

He’s getting better all the time. And so is the Dynamo. It’s no coincidence.

“I’ve worked a lot during this year,” said Carrasquilla, who’s happier talking about his teammates like captain and Mexico legend Hector Herrera who he calls a “great person and leader” or France-born schemer Amine Bassi, than about his own achievements. “I wanted to take advantage of the moment and stay motivated day after day, to be consistent game after game.”  

He’s done that and then some. In addition to his admirable consistency, Carrasquilla’s chameleonic versatility in midfield has helped the Dynamo redefine itself. A team that’s reached the playoffs just once in the last decade, they’re now among the under-the-radar postseason contenders. And helping form a firm fighting fist alongside Herrera, Bassi and Artur, the Panamanian is a cog in one of the best midfield units in Major League Soccer.

Let’s be clear, Carrasquilla’s opponent in the September 27th U.S. Open Cup Final won’t be flying under anyone’s radar. Inter Miami have been the toast of the soccer universe since captain Lionel Messi arrived on the scene in late July, with his everything-winning pals Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba in tow.

Chance to Beat the Best

“It’s a pleasure for anyone to play against the best player in the world – the best player in history,” Carrasquilla said of Messi. “It’s an honor to be on the same field as him, but it’s also an honor to be a part of this [Dynamo] team because of the respect we have for each other and the work we’ve been doing.”

Carrasquilla nods thoughtfully when asked if he’s ok with the narrative of his Dynamo going into the Final as underdogs against what his coach Ben Olsen calls “one of the sexiest teams” in MLS history. “Judging by what Miami has done, I think they have to be called the favorites,” he told usopencup.com.

“But Houston is creating an identity, becoming something to talk about too – and I have total trust in my teammates that we have what it takes to win,” added the midfielder, who’s on the wishlist of several overseas clubs. “That makes me calm, because I know what we are capable of and what we can achieve.”

“We’ll give our maximum effort,” added Carrasquilla, ahead of the Final on the road in Fort Lauderdale – a game that’s being billed by broadcasters in Panama like a heavyweight prize fight: Coco vs. Messi. “I think it would be nice to win a Final against the best player in history.”

Results aside, there’s a tangible sense of fun in this Houston Dynamo. It’s not a word one would use to describe many recent Dynamo squads. But it fits the 2023 Dynamo and the play of Carrasquilla – and his synergy with Herrera and Artur in the heart of midfield – is a huge part of it.

New-Look Dynamo on the Hunt

“We’ve always wanted to be a team that values the ball, and with Coco and Hector [Herrera] we’ve turned into that and it’s been fun to watch” said club GM Pat Onstad, a former Open Cup winner with the Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos and a two-time MLS champion goalkeeper with the Dynamo.

It’s that resurgence of his club, underachievers since winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, and a redefining of what makes the Houston Dynamo tick, that’s at the front of Carrasquilla’s mind. And his unwavering commitment to the collective will have his coach, the always demanding Olsen, smiling too.

“Just by us reaching the Final it’s a reward for the city of Houston,” said Carrasquilla. “We’re a club that’s not reached the playoffs and that hasn’t had many Finals lately. So to go out there and have the chance to fight, that will be with me for all 90 minutes or however long the game goes on.

“We are capable [of winning], we are ready to help each other and to not be selfish and to continue working as a group” added this star in the making, about the business of rebuilding a club and reconnecting with its long-suffering fans. “And now we have the chance to achieve it.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.