First season, first playoff game, and a player pipeline that’s delivering results for both clubs—it’s been quite a start for the partnership between the Dynamo and the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros.
The Dynamo and RGV FC formed a hybrid affiliation in July last year. It’s an agreement that sees the MLS club control the coaching and roster construction, while RGV’s ownership—which also runs the NBA D-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets—oversees business operations.
The youth development project taps into the potential and passion for soccer in the Valley, a region of some 1.3 million people, 350 miles from Houston and 240 miles from San Antonio, where the narrow, winding Rio Grande river defines the border between Texas and Mexico.
Under highly-rated head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who previously coached Chivas USA in MLS, the Toros finished second in their debut campaign in the United Soccer League’s Western Conference, a point behind Sacramento Republic FC, though they fell 3-2 to OKC Energy FC in their opening playoff match.
“It’s been such a positive story for our club, and especially when you think that this is a group that just got put together February 15th of this year,” said Dynamo general manager/vice-president Matt Jordan, who sees the partnership as a key component of his mission to develop young talent.
“It’s a real league, there’s real pressure, real competition. And that’s huge. And the great thing also is the city has really taken to the team and it’s a big deal. It’s been really, really positive for our organization.
“It’s a very strategic location. It’s a hotbed of soccer and there’s a true appreciation for the game down there. We’re really excited about the way the project’s going and what it’s going to look like in years to come.”
MLS clubs have increasingly turned to the fast-growing and professional USL in recent years as a way of bridging the gap between MLS and the lower leagues. Promising youngsters who might otherwise have been starved of action get competitive minutes, often in front of big crowds. Of the 29 USL sides this year, 20 were either owned and operated by, or affiliated with, MLS franchises.
“We need to get younger and that’s something that if we’re getting this right, hopefully we’re building a succession plan where we’re able to transition players,” said Jordan.
And it’s a two-way shuttle: first team regulars returning from injury can also benefit from a period in the Valley. Collen Warner, Mauro Manotas and Tyler Deric are among the Dynamos who had spells with RGV this season to develop fitness and sharpness. Jordan believes that Manotas’s time with the Toros helped him find a solid rhythm. The striker’s hat trick for the Dynamo against the Portland Timbers on September 24 led to him being named MLS Player of the Week.
“It’s been a real asset,” said Dynamo interim head coach Wade Barrett. “Wilmer’s done an excellent job and it’s been a great opportunity for us to send guys to get minutes, to be fresh, so that when they do come back with us you feel confident that if they get into the game situation they’re completely ready.”
Playing a possession-oriented brand of soccer, only one team scored more goals than the Toros, while the defense was the tightest in the conference. It went 758 minutes without conceding a goal—a USL record.
Ruben Luna was the club’s top scorer with seven in the 30-game regular season, while Dynamo Academy product Memo Rodriguez topped the assists chart with seven. The midfielder also contributed six goals.
A diverse roster—featuring players from Texas, elsewhere in the US, England, Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Honduras—was built to a plan. One-third would come from the Dynamo Academy, one-third from the USL and draft picks, and the rest from foreign talent. “You put it up on a drawing board and it’s been nice to see it come to fruition,” said Jordan.
There’s a buzz off the field, too: a near-10,000-seat stadium in Edinburg, a city 20 miles north of the border with Mexico, is set to open for preseason next year and takes inspiration from the Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium home.
BUILDING BLOCKS FOR THE FUTURE
Assistant general manager/director of soccer operations Nick Kowba makes the trip from Houston a couple of times a month and has been delighted by what he’s seen and the long-term potential of the partnership.
“The players that we’ve placed down there have all brought the right attitude, frame of mind, and they understand that it’s a stepping stone to where they want to be and they have to apply themselves,” he said. “No matter what challenges have come up the team’s faced it head on.”
Some of those tests: needing to gel quickly as a new team, playing the first four games on the road and home games in a temporary stadium, and long journeys.
“To be a first year expansion club and to do as well as we’ve done is incredible. We’re in a good place right now and we’re confident going into the playoffs,” said defender and captain Kevin Garcia, who believes that the USL offers valuable preparation for the higher standard.
“I’m sure the play is much faster in MLS but doing the little things right—playing as a unit right, getting defensive qualities right, offensive qualities right, making sure everyone is on the same page—it doesn’t change much when you switch levels, just the pace is quicker.”
Honduran midfielder José Escalante said that playing for the Toros is “overall a great experience because you’re playing against some of the best young talent out there. You can only learn from that kind of experience.” And though competition within the roster is fierce—“you’re fighting for every minute”—Escalante said that team spirit is strong. “There is this unity, we all want the best for each other, to get to the next level,” he said.
Garcia and Escalante were rewarded for strong displays with RGV FC by being added to Barrett’s Dynamo squad late in the season. The coach is pleased by what he's seen in training, and gave Escalante his MLS debut as a substitute against New York City FC on Friday night.
“José is a good young talent, Kevin’s been a pro for a number of years but he’s played at a very consistent level, a very high level, over the course of the season," Barrett said. "You can look at that and say that the project has worked.”