The Houston Dynamo Renaissance

Join us for a deep dive into the revival underway at 2023 Open Cup Finalists Houston Dynamo – a club digging out from a decade of what coach Ben Olsen describes as “invisibility” and “irrelevance.”
By: Jonah Fontela

Something’s happening in Houston, Texas.

It’s not a revolution. And nothing as mundane as a rebrand. It’s a revival. A spiritual recapturing of what once was at an MLS club that fell on hard times – and stayed down there for a decade.

“It’s not exactly that we’re disrespected,” said head coach Ben Olsen, one of the symbols of this new dawn for the Houston Dynamo. “But like we’re invisible. I see it week in and week out. And that’s because the club has been irrelevant for ten years or so.”

No one’s ever accused Olsen of mincing his words. Or for lacking sincerity. He made his name as a midfield battler at D.C. United and he’s known now, in the technical area, as a master motivator and shrewd tactician.

“Houston kind of needs a renaissance here to make this club one that people respect and fear,” he said. “Instead of opponents just knowing, ‘oh we have to go to Houston, there’s not gonna’ be a lot of people and it’s gonna be a hundred degrees’.”

“There’s only one way to do that,” Olsen added, his eyes the wide and knowing kind. “Being in Open Cup Finals and raising trophies and putting ourselves in the postseason year after year. That’s the job.”

Digging out from Dark Days

There’s no Renaissance without first a decline, a drift into the dark ages.

Those blew into Houston like a foul storm after a meteoric start to life in MLS in 2006. The original San Jose Earthquakes relocated that year, the franchise coming to steamy Southeast Texas under a new name and with its players pulling on those now-signature orange kits. With a squad led by standout stars of yesteryear like Dwayne DeRosario, Alejandro Moreno and Stu Holden, the Orange Crush won back-to-back titles in their inaugural and sophomore year.

The groundwork was laid for an MLS dynasty that failed to materialize in the long term. After finishing runners-up in MLS twice in a row in 2011 and 2012, led by the outstanding Brian Ching and Brad Davis, the club stagnated. The Dynamo lost its identity and slipped into a decade when losing was the dominant theme. From 2013 to today, they’ve reached the MLS playoffs exactly once (in 2017).

The lone bright spot was a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title, hoisted into the hot Houston air by then-captain DaMarcus Beasley, to a not-quite-full stadium in September of 2018.

When their current home of Shell Energy Stadium was built downtown in 2012, steps away from the home of the oft-packed baseball Astros and NBA Rockets, it didn’t take long to fall silent. Numbers dwindled to a handful of hard-liners and their drums. And all this in Houston, a town that regularly draws huge 70,000-plus crowds for internationals and summertime friendlies at nearby Reliant Stadium (home to the NFL’s Texans) and is rumored to be in the running to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup Final.

The last two seasons saw the Dynamo finish last and second-to-last respectively. What's that they say about it being darkest just before the dawn?

“For me, it’s personal,” said General Manager Pat Onstad, the former Dynamo goalkeeper whose safe hands lifted the MLS Cup trophy in 2006 and 2007. “I wanted to be sure that when I got here I was all-in to do my best to help turn this thing around. To make a team and develop some of that grit we had once.”

A New Dynamo is Born

They’ve got that grit in spades now. Possession too. Some might get hung up on the lightning counter-attack – which can reach hyper-space speeds – but with Hector Herrera pulling the strings in midfield, this new-look Dynamo has all the makings of a potential champion.

It’s no accident. New owner Ted Segal, steadily about the slow business of getting people to buy back into a club that’s let them down, cleaned house. He brought in Onstad – a straight-talker with all the experience in the world. And Olsen too, who pulled off the magic act of winning the Open Cup in 2013 at the helm of the worst team in MLS history.

No players remain from the Dynamo side that lifted the Open Cup trophy in 2018. A full gut renovation was undertaken. And what’s left is a team that can play. “We can keep the ball and we’re a team,” said Onstad with a mixture of wonder, relief and hope.

Last year was a struggle and the early parts of this season were too, as the Dynamo bounced up and down the Western Conference standings. But now, with the postseason looming (they’re two points off second-place and near clinching) and a Final to play against Inter Miami, the “sexiest team this league has produced” according to Olsen, Houston are hitting their stride.

Those seeds that were sunk into moist and ready earth in 2021 are finding purchase. Once modest players are playing above themselves. Stars are pushing their performances into the stratosphere. And they're doing it all while being ignored.

Under-the-Radar Dynamo

“Maybe it’s not so interesting to talk about the Houston Dynamo as it is to talk about all the other teams and we’re fine with that,” said Erik Sviatchenko, a trophy-winner in three countries brought in to shore up the defense six months ago. “Inter Miami are the talk of the town and Messi is the cherry on top.”

Everyone in the Dynamo locker room is happy to buy the outside narrative that they’re the David to Inter Miami’s Goliath ahead of the September 27th Final in Fort Lauderdale. It suits them. And coming in under the radar is right up their alley.

“Miami could play anybody in this Final and they’re still going to be favorites,” said Onstad, smiling when he jokes about Inter’s captain Messi, the “Number 10, the left-footed guy everyone’s talking about.” Corey Baird, a journeyman striker who’s having the best year of his career since being named Rookie of the Year in 2018, agrees with his front office boss: “OK sure, we don’t have the flashiest names but we play as a team and them being the favorites is just right for us.” 

The Dynamo aren’t just a collection of well-meaning, hard-working role players. Far from it. They’ve got some big names of their own. Captain Hector Herrera last went face-to-face with Messi in the 2022 World Cup group stage in Qatar and his fingerprints are all over this new Houston team.

He’s the conductor in the middle. Box-to-box sometimes, deep-lying others and sometimes channeling his idol Juan Roman Riquelme in a classic number-ten schemer’s role.

“I feel very calm and confident in the people around me,” he told about his teammates. “When the connections are real – and not just on the field – it makes the work you do a lot easier. We’re happy and motivated and we’ve arrived somewhere serious after struggling last season.”

Some of those folks around Herrera help comprise one of the best – and most versatile – midfield units in the league. France-born Amine Bassi in one and, of course, the livewire Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla, who’s been one of the revelations of 2023.

Inter Miami & Messi Await

“Of course Miami would have to be considered the favorites,” said Carrasquilla, the 24-year-old Panamanian recently named MVP of the Concacaf Gold Cup. “But Houston is creating an identity, something for people to talk about and I blindly trust in my teammates and the team we’ve built to win this Final.

“I think it would be nice to win a Final against the best player in the world,” he added, a glint in his eye thinking hard about his opponent on the day.

“We’ve gotten to know each other, how each of us plays,” added Artur, a former MLS Cup winner and another piece of the Ben Olsen jigsaw puzzle that’s showing very little of its gray background. “It isn’t down to one player to make the plays all the time – we share the attack and we share the defending.

“We connect. We understand each other. It’s a group effort.”

Artur’s words ring out on the eve of the 108th Open Cup Final. Houston, grown together and bought in, are building something to last. Pulling out of that dark night of yesterday and into tomorrow’s bright, shimmering dawn.

“It takes time,” said Olsen, who knows the value of a fresh start for players, fans and all involved. “But trophies matter. You don’t get many chances, even if you’re lucky.

“That one night of glory is a rare thing,” he said, eyes forward, with a knowing nod.  

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