24 Thoughts: Dynamo and D.C. start fast, Fire's future, MLSers on U.S. U-20 roster

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 05: Houston Dynamo Team poses for picture prior the quarter final first leg match between Houston Dynamo and Tigres UANL as part of the CONCACAF Champions League 2019 at BBVA Compass Stadium on March 5, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Still undefeated more than a month into the 2019 MLS season, the Houston Dynamo are off the best start in their history this year. (Omar Vega/Getty)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

Next to nobody expected the Houston Dynamo, who’ve made the playoffs just once in the last five years, to be unbeaten with three wins and a draw a month into the 2019 MLS season. It’s the best start in club history. And it looks even impressive when you consider that Houston had to juggle a two-leg, home-and-home series with Liga MX powerhouse Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League just as the MLS regular season was kicking off.

The Dynamo lost to Tigres 3-0 on aggregate. But it was closer than the score line looked, giving Wilmer Cabrera’s team a quiet confidence that has carried into April.

“If we can compete against arguably the best team in the region, if we continue improving and getting sharper, we can compete with any team in MLS,” third-year coach Cabrera told Yahoo Sports. “We believe that.”

24 Thoughts

1. Houston made it all the way to the West final in 2017 in Cabrera’s first year at the helm. The roster was decimated by injuries last season, though, and finished 17th out of 23 teams overall. Yet the season wasn’t a total write-off: The Dynamo won their first U.S. Open Cup. “It was really important step for us to win that,” general manager Matt Jordan said in a phone interview.

2. Jordan has constructed a well-balanced squad featuring dynamic (no pun intended) young attackers Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas, experienced Argentine midfielders Tomas Martinez and Mathias Vera and grizzled MLS veterans DaMarcus Beasley, A.J. DeLaGarza, Maynor Figueroa and Boniek Garcia. “Our focus has been to build a roster that is young and has upside but has vets also,” said Jordan, now in his fifth season as GM. “We added more support players this offseason with experienced MLS guys like Marlon Hairston and Tommy McNamara. It’s a good mix.”

3. Many coaches and GMs say it takes three years to revamp a roster and get it how they like. I asked Cabrera if this squad was a finished product or if a few new recruits could be Texas-bound. “As a coach, you don’t ever think the team is complete,” he said. “You always see possibilities to improve the team in specific areas. We need to keep everyone on their toes. We need to make sure that no one is comfortable. If we can bring in someone to make us better, we’re going to do it.”

4. Cabrera is an interesting guy. He won 48 caps as a defender for the swashbuckling Colombian national team during its 1990s heyday, and he played in the 1998 World Cup. He finished his career with the second-tier Long Island Rough Riders before becoming a youth coach. From 2007-12, he helmed the U.S. U-17 national team.

MONTERREY, MEXICO - MARCH 12: Wilmer Cabrera, coach of Houston Dynamo, is seen on the bench prior the match between Tigres UANL and Houston Dynamo as part of the CONCACAF Champions League at Universitario Stadium on March 12, 2019 in Monterrey, Mexico. (Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Former Colombian World Cup player Wilmer Cabrera is in his third season as coach of the Houston Dynamo. (Azael Rodriguez/Getty)

5. U.S. Soccer’s development academy program was just getting off the ground when Cabrera started with the U-17s. “Back then, young players didn’t even know the league,” Cabrera said when asked how the landscape has changed over the last dozen years. “Now, the mentality of the players is that they want to become professionals for their clubs in MLS. Before, they just wanted to play for fun or maybe to get a scholarship to college. Players are more well-prepared now. They watch more soccer, they’re more passionate about it, and they’re more focused on becoming a professional.”

6. Cabrera, who never played in MLS, also noted that the league has changed significantly just in the last couple of seasons. “It’s becoming more tactical,” he said. “It used to be a little more free-flowing. Teams are more difficult to beat. They know what they want. They have a clear shape.

“You’re forced to improve the quality of your training sessions, how you prepare for your games,” Cabrera added. “It’s increasing the level of the competition, and it’s also making the league more attractive to players around the world because they see how professional and structured the league has become. “

7. The Dynamo may be trending up on the field, but they’ve been heading in the wrong direction at the gate over the last four years. Average attendance at the beautiful downtown BBVA Compass Stadium peaked at almost 21,000, near capacity, when the building opened in 2012. But it has fallen every year since 2015, to an all-time low of 16,906 last year.

8. Houston certainly isn’t the only MLS market struggling to draw paying customers. But they are trying to do something — besides winning — about it. In November, the Dynamo hired John Walker as their president of business operations. Walker arrived with more than 30 years experience as a sports executive, including stints with baseball’s Kansas City Royals and the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA.

9. “We need to rekindle some relationships that were really strong that have maybe not been cared for over the last several years,” Walker told Yahoo. Dynamo fans were spoiled early on. The team won MLS Cup in 2006 and ‘07, its first two years in the city after relocating from San Jose. It was the losing finalist in 2011 and ’12 but has mostly been an also-ran since.

“Ownership recognized that the franchise may not have performed, both on the pitch and off it, the way they would’ve liked,” Walker continued. “I think they, like you and I, are looking around and seeing Cincinnati and Atlanta and LAFC come online and the fans rallying around them for years before even rolling a ball out. We have a little bit of a different challenge. We’re building and helping to repair this plane while we’re flying it. But I think the results could be the same.”

10. The potential in Houston is part of what drew Walker to the project in the first place. “I have to tell you, as someone who’s been in this industry as long as I have, what’s been happening in MLS over the last five years or so, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “This city should really be a leader in MLS, and I think ownership has that vision. It was pretty compelling to me.”

STERLING, VA - JANUARY 23:  D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen talks with forward Wayne Rooney (9) during the team's media day practice at The St. James on Wednesday, January 23, 2019.  (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Ben Olsen (left) and Wayne Rooney have D.C. United sitting atop the Eastern Conference. (Toni L. Sandys/Getty)

11. Over in the East, D.C. United is sitting pretty in first place. Like the Dynamo, Wayne Rooney and Co. have roared out of the gates with a 3-0-1 record. They’ve allowed just one goal against, the stingiest defensive mark in MLS. It’s a far cry from last year, when it took United until July to post three victories. DCU was forced to play its first 14 matches on the road in 2018 as it waited for Audi Field to be completed.

12. For Black and Red coach Ben Olsen, the difference this year is night and day—not that he’s dwelling on the fast start too much. “We’re in a good spot right now but for me, this job is still a week-to-week deal,” Olsen told me.

13. “This is a result-driven job and it’s tough to separate yourself from that and get too jazzed up about the fact that we’re doing OK. But I will say this: As a guy who’s been here a long time, it’s really nice to be relevant again in the city,” Olsen added.

“For a long time, we were in a kind of dangerous area of not being relevant. Now, you have a team that I think fans are proud of, have players I think they can identify with and a style that I think they enjoy watching.”

14. Rooney has been a huge part of that. The Manchester United legend took the league by storm last year after arriving midseason, and he’s picked up where he left off this spring. “We couldn’t be happier with him,” Olsen said of Rooney. “He’s comfortable with who he is, with the younger guys, the veterans. He’s comfortable leading or if someone else wants to lead in the moment, he’s good with that, too. I think he likes our group, and he loves to play the game and to win. People ask me all the time if he can keep it up all season. I certainly don’t see why not.”

15. Olsen is a D.C. United lifer. He played with the club from 1998-2009, winning two MLS Cups. He became its head coach toward the end of 2010 after serving less than a season as an assistant, and is now the second-longest tenured boss in the league after Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes. Given that history, I was curious if Olsen allowed himself a moment, after Rooney arrived and the stadium opened, to enjoy the club’s new reality. He picked two.

16. “We were in a must-win situation for months last season,” Olsen said. “So the time I really sat back and enjoyed it was when we secured a playoff berth. That was our goal all year, and we knew it was going to be a tall task, so for us to do it the way we did it in front of our fans, was special.” Surprisingly, the other was the playoff loss to Columbus. “Even though it ended the wrong way for us, the atmosphere in that playoff game — it was unbelievable having that many people invested and engaged.”

17. Walker Zimmerman is having a strong season so far for LAFC after struggling at times for the expansion club during his contract year in 2018. Some players perform better when playing for a new deal, then almost subconsciously relax after reupping. Others show better once their future is determined. I think Zimmerman, who inked a new pact this offseason, falls into the latter category. And while he wasn’t named to the U.S. national team roster for last month’s friendlies with Ecuador and Chile, I’d be surprised if Zimmerman doesn’t make Berhalter’s Gold Cup squad.

18. On Wednesday, my buddy Roberto Abramowitz dropped some bombshell news that the Chicago Fire may have committed to a rebrand:

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I haven’t been able to confirm it, yet but the team didn’t exactly deny the report in the terse, 12-word statement a Fire spokesman sent me Thursday afternoon: “We don’t comment on social media speculation from individuals outside the organization.” Fine, but Roberto’s an OG who has covered MLS since its inception. He doesn’t tweet out every rumor he hears. So where there’s smoke there’s, well, you know the rest.

19. Now I’d be all for the Fire returning to Soldier Field, the club’s home during its early years. There have been whispers about this possibility for years for obvious reasons. The club simply has to get out of Seat Geek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview. Yes, Soldier Field is too big. But it’s in the city and has a natural grass field, something successful downtown MLS-NFL stadiums in Atlanta and Seattle don’t. Put an exciting, successful team in that place and market them properly and there is no reason the Fire can’t matter in Chicago again. There’s even a precedent there in the Blackhawks.

20. In the mid-2000s, the hockey team that has called the Windy City home since 1926 wasn’t represented on a Sporting News cover declaring Chicago America’s best sports city. The NHL club was easy to forget after missing the playoffs nine out of 10 times last decade. For most of this one, though, the Blackhawks have been the toast of Chicago, with three Stanley Cups making them the hottest ticket in town along with baseball’s Cubs. There’s nothing wrong with the Fire’s brand. It’s got history. But you have to give the people a reason to care.

21. I caught up quickly with U.S. under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos last week in New York. With the U-20 World Cup in Poland looming next month, I wanted to know how confident Ramos is that MLS teams will release players for the competition. Like their European counterparts, MLS sides don’t have to let youth players represent their countries. Still, domestic teams have almost always been cooperative.

22. “I honestly don’t see that we’ll have any issues with [MLS] players,” Ramos said. The coach will take a shorthanded squad regardless. Berhalter has already ruled senior team regular Tyler Adams out. Nick Taitague and SKC’s Jaylin Lindsey are both injured. “I always like to have the best players we can have, but we never go with the best players,” Ramos said. “We’ll make do with what we have.”

FRISCO, TX - JUNE 27: FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal (19) looks to pass the ball during the game between FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids on June 27, 2017, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal is expected to be one of the top players for the United States at next month's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland. (George Walker/Getty)

23. What Ramos needs most of all are fit and in-form athletes. “We have very little preparation time for this World Cup, so we have to hit the ground running and we have no time to prepare the players physically,” he said. “The players over the next seven weeks who are not playing games, they’re unlikely to make the team.”

There are two possible exceptions: Nineteen-year-old forwards Josh Sargent and especially Tim Weah, whose limited playing time with Werder Bremen and Celtic, respectively, could rule them out of Gold Cup roster contention and free them up to join the U-20s instead. Ramos didn’t rule it out. “That’s a question for Gregg,” he said.

24. Another 19-year-old, Paxton Pomykal, has turned heads with FC Dallas this season. (FCD and new coach Luchi Gonzalez deserve some love in this space and will get it soon.) Ramos has big plans for the playmaker.

“The discussion with Dallas has already been had, because Paxton is a really important part of our group,” the coach said. “He starts every game in MLS and that’s a great thing. But players that are going to play in the under-20 World Cup for other countries, they also start for their club teams every week. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.