Some teams come to resemble their leaders.
The Houston Dynamo, who face an Open Cup Final on the road against Lionel Messi and Inter Miami on September 27th, are one of those teams. Broad-shouldered and serious. Gritty and clever, committed to the cause and willing to sacrifice for it, this squad is the spitting image of its captain and spiritual leader Hector Herrera.
“There’s so much trust in this team,” said the midfield general, who amassed over 100 caps for his Mexican national team and knows precisely what it takes to win the game’s biggest prizes. “The internal competition is good and the friendships are real and you can see that out on the field.”
The Dynamo are currently on a seven-game unbeaten run and charging up the Western Conference. They rise to the occasion more and more as the battles get thicker and the margins for error thinner. They’ve taken on the attributes and stooped, serious posture of the man they call, simply, ‘HH’ (Hache Hache).
From Tijuana to Madrid
Born in Tijuana, Mexico 33 years ago, Herrera was schooled at Pachuca’s demanding youth academy in the shadow of the Sierra Madres. It was there, with the Tuzos’ senior team, that he made his first-team professional debut while still a teenager and took the first few cautious steps toward becoming a Mexico legend and an overseas title winner with Porto and Atletico de Madrid.
“He’s massive,” Dynamo coach Ben Olsen, a two-time Open Cup winner, said about his on-field lieutenant who pulls the strings in midfield. “He’s a key stakeholder, a guy who really drives us and when he’s at his best, we’re a much better team.
“And of course,” Olsen smirked, “he’s played in a few big games before.”
Among those are World Cups and a gold-medal match at the 2012 London Olympic Games. And let’s not forget the Champions League knockout stages. In 2021, during his last year of a three-season stretch with Atletico, he helped win a Primera Liga title for Los Colchoneros. It was an historic triumph for the club and it came at the expense of crosstown rivals Real Madrid and Lionel Messi’s FC Barcelona.
The upcoming Open Cup Final will be a reunion of sorts for Herrera and Messi, who last met on November 26th of 2022 in the World Cup’s Group Stage in Qatar.
“When it’s time for the [U.S. Open Cup] Final it will be the only thing that matters for us. And it will be extra motivation to play against a player like Lionel Messi,” said Herrera, one of only two players in this Houston side who’s ever gone head-to-head with the man he calls “the best player in the world for a reason.”
It will fall to Herrera to help prepare his teammates for what to expect on the big day. When there’s a trophy in the building. “This is what we play for, what we work for as a team in training,” the 2023 MLS All-Star said about the chance to bring another Open Cup title to Houston after the Dynamo’s 2018 triumph in the same tournament. “It would be very nice for me personally, but more importantly it would be a reward for the team and what we’ve built here.”
“We finished second-to-last last year [in MLS] but this year has been very different,” said the midfielder who arrived last year in Texas with high expectations that were blunted by injury and preparations for a rare winter-time World Cup staged on the other side of the planet.
“He’s all-in and he wants to be here,” said former Dynamo goalkeeper and current GM Pat Onstad, who won two MLS titles at the club and an Open Cup with the Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos in 1999. “And you can see this year what happens when he's all-in; he brings everyone else along with him.”
The Dynamo are hunting an MLS playoff berth and a likely home-field advantage once they officially clinch. It would be their first postseasons since 2017 and only the second in a decade. Herrera’s leadership in this revival year of 2023 has made every member of the team better.
“He respects his teammates a lot and that’s something to be admired because it generates trust,” said one of those players, Panamanian sensation Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla, a partner in the middle who was named MVP at the most recent Concacaf Gold Cup. “He’s a leader who truly earned the respect and admiration of the entire group and in the end we are proud to have him as captain.”
“You wouldn’t know he’s played in all these World Cups when we're together in the locker room,” added striker (and sometimes winger) Corey Baird, who’s having the best year of his career since being named MLS’ Rookie of the Year in 2018. “He can be rough on us out on the field when he’s not getting what he wants, but he jokes around with us in the locker room too – and with everyone: guys that are playing every minute or guys that are up and down between the first and the second team.”
Fun is not a word that’s bandied about much when describing recent Houston Dynamo sides. It’s not a modifier often applied to the combative Herrera either. But there’s no getting around the fact that this Houston Dynamo is a damn fun team to watch.
Dynamo Joy on Display
“It’s true, right? On the field you can see the joy we have with the ball and even without the ball,” Herrera told usopencup.com about his free-scoring Dynamo – boasting one of the quickest counter-attacks in MLS and peaking at just the right time. “That’s because of the work we do. We do it as a group and, for me, that’s the most important thing.
“Each one of us has his best qualities,” added Herrera, comfortable in the tackle or roaring forward – a true all-arounder. “Each has his ability to serve the team. I think that’s our main strength.”
All good leaders know they can’t do it alone. It’s a lesson Herrera has learned in his decade-plus in the game – and having played on some of its brightest stages. Up against Messi and Inter Miami in a Final on September 27th, the Dynamo will need him and he’ll need the Dynamo.
“This is what it’s about. Trying to win trophies and achieve victories,” he said on the eve of the Open Cup decider. “Of course we have a great rival ahead, but that should motivate us and encourage us to be able to get that trophy. We believe that we can bring this Cup to Houston because of the work we’ve done.
“The people here deserve it” he said, a trademark firmness in his voice. “They’re in need of joy and we hope we can be the ones to give it to the city.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.