When Tab Ramos took over as Houston Dynamo head coach, he was fully aware that he would be taking on a challenging job with a team in serious need of an overhaul. That much was made clear during a 2020 season that saw the Dynamo finish in last place while also bidding farewell to two of the team’s better players in Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas.
The good news for Ramos is that the Dynamo had a busy offseason adding some encouraging pieces to the roster, and the team still has some cap space to bring in some upgrades later in the season.
“I think we did a good job in this offseason using every MLS mechanism available,” Ramos said. “We made trades and used our draft and used (General Allocation Money) and (Targeted Allocation Money), all that stuff to change the team. So, yeah we did a good job with that. We did not go outside our market, we left ourselves with (open Designated Player) spots, we have an international spot open. So, we left ourselves in a good situation to get the season going and to make the team stronger down the road.”
In terms of the team Ramos has to start the season, it is one that should be boosted by the arrival of veteran central defender Tim Parker, who helps fill a big need at centerback. The Dynamo had one of the worst defenses in the league in 2020 and Parker represents the kind of upgrade Ramos was hoping for as he endured a disappointing first season in charge.
The Dynamo attack will be led by Colombian Darwin Quintero, who recorded a game-high seven goals and 10 assists in 2020. Now 33, Quintero isn’t the speedster he once was, and he will have to carry more of the attacking load with Elis and Manotas gone, at least until reinforcements are brought in.
One player who should help give Quintero some help in the Dynamo midfield is Joe Corona, who arrived in Houston as a free agent from the LA Galaxy and should help the Dynamo in possession with his solid two-way midfield play.
Corona and Memo Rodriguez will give the Dynamo a solid central midfield capable of generating chances, with Rodriguez capable of operating as a winger, or centrally, which should help him to interchange with Quintero.
The striker position features new arrival Maxi Urruti along with 2020 holdovers Christian Ramirez and Ariel Lassiter. Urruti’s work rate and hold-up play make him a good option in Tab Ramos’ setup, but Ramirez and Lassiter should also have opportunities to grab the starting role unless Urruti can maintain consistency, which he has struggled to find in recent years.
The battle for the starting defensive midfield role will see Matias Vera face competition from newly-acquired Derrick Jones, who Ramos worked with when he was U.S. Under-20 coach. Vera is better with the ball, and can jump into the attack, but Jones has more bite to his game and is stronger on the tackle, which could help the Dynamo’s defense.
Ramos brings back the same fullbacks, with Adam Lundqvist and Zarek Valentin coming off seasons that could have been better, though they didn’t carry as much of the blame for the Dynamo’s defensive woes as some other players.
That is where Tim Parker comes in. Maynor Figueroa had a solid season in central defense in 2020, but Kiki Struna and Victor Cabrera were both terrible playing next to him, making things that much tougher on the now-37-year-old Honduran. Parker’s speed and experience should help not only Figueroa but the fullbacks as well, and if rookie Ethan Bartlow develops into a potential first-year contributor, he could help pick up some of the workload to help ease the wear and tear on Figueroa.
Here is a closer look at the Houston Dynamo heading into 2021:
2021 Houston Dynamo Season Preview
2020 Finish: 12th in Western Conference (4-10-9 21 points, missed the playoffs)
Key Additions: Tim Parker, Joe Corona, Fafa Picault, Maxi Urruti, Mateo Bajamich, Derrick Jones, Ethan Bartlow, Tyler Pasher
Key Losses: Mauro Manotas, Thomas Martinez, Kiki Struna, Niko Hansen
Newcomer to Watch: Tim Parker
The Dynamo’s defense was slow and not nearly athletic enough to deal with the dangerous attacks in the Western Conference. Parker’s arrival should provide a boost as his speed and physicality should pair well with the experience Maynor Figueroa brings to central defense.
Parker is no stranger to adapting to a new team, having started his career in Vancouver before making the move to the New York Red Bulls, where he was part of the league’s stingiest defense in 2018. He has had some up and down years, but the 28-year-old still represents a considerable upgrade to the Dynamo defense.
“Tim was likely our strongest acquisition of the offseason,” Ramos said. “That is one that we set aside the day the season was over. I think the next day we contacted the (NY) Red Bulls about the possibility of bringing Tim here, because Tim is a great player on the field, a great defender 1v1, he is great in the air. But he is also a great person and a good one to set the culture around, because he demands high standards.”
Pressure is On: Maxi Urruti
The departures of Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas really cut into the Dynamo’s dangerous attack, and with Christian Ramirez failing to take hold of the striker spot, in comes Urruti in an important year after his disappointing 2020 with Montreal.
What Ramos will love about Urruti is his work rate and defensive contributions from the striker position. Urruti will need to generate goals to keep his job, but if he can help pressure opposing defenders in possession, and drop back to press midfielders, then that will help the Dynamo improve overall defensively.
Now, if Urruti can’t find the net, then it could open the door for Ramirez to take over the job. If Urruti can’t keep the job, it could be his last chance to be a starter in MLS.
When you finish in last place, there is nowhere to go but up, and with the roster revamp, the Dynamo should succeed in climbing out of the West basement.
Just how far up the standings they go will depend on a variety of factors, and could require ownership to invest and make full use of the vacant designated player slots now available, but Ramos can’t afford to wait for more reinforcements. Instead, he will work to incorporate a group of players that is arguably better suited to play his preferred system than the squad Ramos took into the 2020 season.
“I want to see a team that is a happy team playing,” Ramos said. “A team that is happy to have the ball and create chances and when we create chances we are happy to create more.
“There really is no secret here,” Ramos said. “Everybody knows we play in a 4-3-3, everybody knows we are always attacking with at least three players and what we have this year that we didn’t have as much last year is a very hard working team that is willing to do the dirty work.
“So, I am looking forward to a lot of the work that we did in preseason to finally come to fruition as the season begins, because I think we have dangerous attacking players and now it is time to do it on the field and in the games and when it counts.”
The infusion of talent hasn’t kept the Dynamo from being labeled by many as a team destined to stay in the West basement, which is just fine for a Dynamo team using the slights as motivation, and a team that knows this year’s version is better.
“Last season was last season, everybody has to get a new chance,” Dynamo goalkeeper Marko Marin said. “And of course, it’s motivating, especially when nobody counts on you. You can prove only the best and wrong for other people. It’s a big opportunity to show Okay, last year was last year, but this is a new year, a new team and a new era and show that we can do better.”
How will a team that lost Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas be better in 2021? Ramos reveals it in his comments about now having a hard-working team willing to do the dirty work. If the 2020 Dynamo lacked something, it was tenacity, which was a glaring missed ingredient for a team that was never going to win many games on talent alone.
This year’s Dynamo may not be quite as dangerous in attack as last year, when Elis was leading the attack and Manotas provided a capable striker, but the arrivals of players like Urruti, Corona, Jones and Parker should make the Dynamo a tougher team to play against, meaning a team that will be more competitive from week to week.
Will that be enough to help the Dynamo climb from the Western Conference basement to a place in the top seven, and the playoff berth that would come with it? That might be too ambitious a jump to expect, particularly without some additional Designated Players, but the 2021 Dynamo could take a clear step forward in year two under Ramos.
Houston Dynamo Roster
Goalkeepers – Marko Maric, Kyle Morton, Michael Nelson.
Defenders – Ethan Bartlow, Jose Bizama, Maynor Figueroa, Alejandro Fuenmayor, Ian Hoffman, Sam Junqua, Adam Lundkvist, Erik McCue, Tim Parker, Zarek Valentin
Midfielders – Juan Castilla, Darwin Ceren, Joe Corona, Oscar ‘Boniek’ Garcia, Derrick Jones, Marcelo Palomino, Fafa Picault, Daniel Rios, Memo Rodriguez, Matias Vera
Forwards – Mateo Bajamich, Ariel Lassiter, Nico Lemoine, Tyler Pasher, Darwin Quintero, Christian Ramirez, Maxi Urruti