Houston Dynamo

Chabala's hard work pays off

“El Chewwyyy!”

The cry from TV Informa announcer Gustavo Rangel was shouted at full volume, calling attention to a big play. The name, however, was not one usually associated with a big Dynamo goal or save. But it spoke volumes to the progress of one Mike Chabala, Houston’s starting left back, known to his teammates as ‘Chewy.’

Nicknamed after the Star Wars character Chewbacca in honor of their names, Chabala rid himself of his considerable amount of hair this week in a tribute to a group of people that has become very important to him: children suffering from cancer.

“I’ve grown to have a really big soft spot for all the kids and the relationships I have over there,” Chabala said. “They understand what I’m doing. It’s nothing that big, but at the same time, it’s meaningful to kind of be on the same level as them. It’s just hair for me, and it will grow back, and unfortunately they’re in a different situation. So there are tears sometimes from some families, but mostly a lot of smiles exchanged, and it’s a good time.”

Chabala and fellow defender Craig Waibel – both University of Washington alumni – are two of many Dynamo players who have been active in children’s cancer care, befriending patients and visiting with them often. The Bald is Beautiful campaign stems from Waibel, who remains a bit jealous of Chabala’s ability to grow out his hair.

“It’s showboating, really, to guys like me and these kids,” Waibel said. “It’s embarrassing that he rubs it in their face. … But seriously, they had a lot of fun [shaving his head]. It’s a lot of fun to watch him go through the shock of losing his security blanket.”

Before today’s game, fans will join Chabala and Waibel in pledging money in exchange for an extra-close haircut, raising funds for children’s cancer research and activities to brighten the lives of kids fighting the disease. Chabala grew his hair out to make the shaving process that much more extreme, earning him a lot of feedback along the way.

“I’ve heard them all,” Chabala said. “From shaggy, gross, greasy to, ‘Oh my God, you look like the guy from The Hangover or Christian Bale in American Psycho.’”

The feedback on Chabala’s play, however, has been the exact opposite. Through 10 games this year, he was the only player to have contested every minute for the Dynamo. While he is trying to pace himself for the first 30-game regular season of his career, that long haul is nothing compared to the wait Chabala endured to get here.

A fourth-round draft pick in Houston’s inaugural draft in 2006, Chabala did not play in a game with the true primary squad until entering as a substitute during the 2008 SuperLiga tournament. The ubiquitous presence in the lineup of captain Wade Barrett at Chabala’s left back spot did not help matters at all.

“I’ve had so many people tell me I wasn’t going to make it here,” Chabala said. “I had friends and family and coaches say I needed to start looking for other teams, especially after my second year, when I was playing behind our captain at the time and a guy that’s had an incredible career in MLS. … For me, I set my goal and wanted to achieve something – to play for this club – and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.”

Chabala logged serious minutes in the MLS Reserve Division (leading the team with six assists in 2006 and starting 32 of 36 contests over three years) and on the training field, trying to make himself into an MLS player.

“Ever since I came here, he’s been working really hard,” said Dynamo midfielder Corey Ashe, a frequent partner of Chabala on the left side, first in reserve games and now at the first-team level. “He’s a hard worker, he’s dedicated, he’s always trying to make himself better – watching film, talking to the older guys, doing stuff after practice – and now it’s paid off.”

From a veteran’s perspective, Waibel said one of the keys to Chabala’s persistence was blind faith and confidence in his ability, even when others considered it unjustified.

“If you want to be a professional athlete, you have to be dumb enough to keep believing in yourself, and I think that got him through,” Waibel said. “Ignorance is bliss. Any professional athlete, minus the Landon Donovans and the guys who were there when they were 16, has to be dumb enough to think they have a chance.”

In reserve play, Chabala showed flashes of brilliance – an accurate, long left-footed pass or a well-executed dribbling cutback – but also struggled with inconsistency and occasional recklessness. As if to make matters worse, when the Fresno, California native finally made his MLS debut as a sub in 2009 – after three full seasons on the bench – he was ejected after just 10 minutes for a stray slide tackle. He exited the field almost in tears.

“I wanted to play on the best club, I wanted to be here, I wanted to play for Dom, and I wanted to play with the guys in the locker room,” Chabala said. “Obviously I had to persevere and work through that. Those three years were tough, because I wasn’t getting paid that well either, so it was a grind. It was a humbling experience.”

A month after that red card, Chabala got another chance with his first career start, and the minutes kept coming after the Dynamo lost Barrett to injury and Andrew Hainault to the Canadian national team. Through a long June and July that included seven consecutive road games, Chabala appeared in each one and eventually saw the majority of playing time down the stretch.

There was more disappointment to come, as Chabala received a yellow card in each leg of the Western Conference semifinal and was suspended as the Dynamo lost in overtime to the LA Galaxy in the conference final, but he had finally arrived. He entered this preseason with a firm handle on he starting spot and can now set his sights on a full season and contributing to the team’s goals.

“Watching those guys that won the MLS Cup championship two years in a row was big,” Chabala said. “Even though I didn’t play and was sharpening them from the practice pitch, to see that and be a part of that made me hungry to be able to do that on my own.”

He and Ashe have developed a partnership on the left side of the field that includes Chabala overlapping down the flank, and he has contributed five assists in just 22 MLS starts, including two-assist games against D.C. United last year and Chivas USA this year. Chabala even got forward to score his first career goal – with his right foot, no less – against FC Dallas in the season opener. That’s a long way from three full seasons without making an MLS appearance.

“It’s been a long road for him,” Waibel said. “He survived longer than most in that situation, because mentally, it’s pretty difficult. This is his first year starting, and he’s 10 games into his first year as a starter, so he’s only one-third of the way through. The next one-third – the next 10 games – are what will determine what kind of year he’s going to have.”

Less than one week removed from his 26th birthday, Chabala still has big dreams, and after all he has already gone through, one cannot blame him for dreaming of the MLS All-Star team and the U.S. national team. Even short of those goals, Chewy – with or without his hair – has become a household name in Houston.