The Rio Grande Valley FC Toros exceeded all reasonable expectations in their inaugural season. The USL hybrid affiliate of the Houston Dynamo, RGV FC opened with four straight games on the road, played home games at two different venues and still managed to finish one point from the top of the Western Conference in its debut season.
RGV FC set many milestones, including the best goal difference – plus 23 – in the Western Conference, and allowed just 24 goals, the second-fewest in the 29-team USL, and fewest in the West. The Toros also led the conference with 16 shutouts and set a USL-record with a streak of 760 minutes without conceding a goal in July and August. RGV also scored 47 goals, second most in the West, trailing LA Galaxy II. They had a 10-game unbeaten streak in the summer and finished the season 7-2-1 over their last ten games. Above all, head coach Wilmer Cabrera was pleased with his team’s consistency and style of play.
“I would say our season was very consistent with a good style of play,” Cabrera told HoustonDynamo.com by phone. “That’s the key for the team. They not only played well, and got results, but we played with a style. All the opponents around the league, and the fans, told us that. You want to have a team with consistency. Over 30 games, the team showed that consistency and proved themselves as a top team.”
After a successful regular season, RGV FC suffered the same fate as three of the top four seeds in the Western Conference playoffs, a home loss in the first round. The Toros twice held leads in a 3-2 loss to OKC Energy FC on September 30. Ruben Luna delivered a 1-0 advantage in the first half and Eric Bird restored the one-goal lead in the second half before OKC’s Colin Bonner scored a pair of goals in stoppage time, the first on a long throw in and then from a corner kick. The Toros (No. 2 seed), along with Sacramento (No. 1 seed) and Colorado Springs (No. 3 seed) all lost their first playoff game, highlighting the depth and competitiveness of the league.
“It was the type of game that you never expect,” Cabrera said. “You’re the better team at home, dominating in possession and creating options. They had one shot on goal in [the first] 90 minutes and that was the goal. Winning 2-1, in the 91st minute you have a chance to score on a counterattack and miss the opportunity. Then, from a long throw the ball bounces and we found ourselves in a 2-2 game. It was very hard for the players to swallow. It was devastating, but the game continued and in 95th minute they scored on a corner kick. That was one of those games you will always remember because it hurts a lot.”
The Toros will play in H-E-B Park next season, a 9,700-seat soccer specific stadium that will bear resemblance to Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium and San Jose’s Avaya Stadium and could be the finest stadium in the USL. After playing home games at UTRGV for several months, the Toros ended the season at the club’s new practice facility. Despite not having a permanent stadium in the debut campaign, the response and turnout from the Rio Grande Valley community was strong.
“I believe that at the beginning they were excited, they had expectations to have a soccer team,” Cabrera said. “The most important thing is they found the team was representing them and expressing a good quality. They were happy with what they were watching and proud of the team.”
Among many consistent performances on the team, midfielder Charlie Ward was one of two players in the league to play every minute–2,700–of the season.
“When you play every minute of every game, that shows consistency. For me, that’s something that Charlie Ward did. He gained respect from fans, teammates and his opponents.”
Another midfielder, Memo Rodriguez, had a breakthrough campaign in his second professional season after gaining limited playing time on loan with the Charleston Battery in 2015. The Dynamo Academy product was waived by the Dynamo in preseason but signed with the Toros and was one of RGV FC’s best players, tallying six goals and seven assists while appearing in all 30 games.
“For Memo, even he told me, the first year wasn’t a great year for him because he didn’t play much and wasn’t mature enough. [This season] he was totally focused and 100 percent ready and he made a big impact. He played every game and he realized that the most important thing was his approach to the game and to the team, to be prepared and mature and to be ready. He told us that in the meeting at the end of the season.”
Christian Lucatero and Charly Flores, both former Dynamo Academy players, experienced an environment of learning in their first professional seasons. Flores’ season was also slowed by injuries, including an MCL sprain that ended his season.
“They are very talented players, with some good qualities. They’re still in a growing situation, maturing, including their mentality, the speed of the game. They are learning the process of being professionals. I think Christian made the adjustments and gained more playing time. The next step is to continue to be more mature mentally. To be more dedicated with a good mental approach to the game. It’s Monday [at training] when you have the start. You have to be more focused and adapted. So they can rely more on their quality. The feedback was given to them every day and every week. Every time they did something positive and negative. When they do well, they need to know why.”
Next year Rio Grande Valley will look to repeat their huge success from their debut season. The league is growing exponentially year after year, with Reno set to join as the USL's 30th club next season. Reno has formed a hybrid affiliation with the San Jose Earthquakes, following the model first introduced by the Dynamo with Rio Grande Valley this season.