John Walker sounds thrilled to be a part of MLS.
“New franchises are coming on year after year, other cities are lining up for those, and so to be a part of that and for this city to have a franchise, it's really a jewel,” the Dynamo’s new President of Business Operations said at a press conference on Thursday alongside majority owner Gabriel Brener.
Now to polish that jewel so it shines as brightly as possible.
Walker joins a club that will fight on three fronts next season. The Dynamo are aiming to reach the MLS postseason, progress deep into the Concacaf Champions League and retain the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The delight at a first U.S. Open Cup in club history – secured with a 3-0 dismissal of the Philadelphia Union in September’s final – cannot disguise the disappointment that the Dynamo missed out on November soccer with a ninth-place finish in the Western Conference.
Wilmer Cabrera’s side did end the regular season on a high with a stunning 3-2 road win over the Los Angeles Galaxy that ended Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hopes of a playoff spot to crown his terrific first MLS campaign. But it’s a lot more fun to be stars than spoilers. This is a club that’s more used to participating than spectating when the matches that matter most roll around.
In the coming weeks, Walker plans to get to grips with the inner workings of the organization while meeting with supporters’ groups as well as local civic and business leaders. Soccer matters will remain in the hands of Cabrera, the head coach, and Senior Vice President/General Manager Matt Jordan.
“The way we were already established before, Matt Jordan used to report to [former president] Chris Canetti, Chris Canetti to me,” said Brener. “All that's going to change now is Matt Jordan is going to be reporting to me directly because at the end of the day, the decisions, the big decisions, were made by me, my fellow co-owners of the team and the board of directors. So I don't see any changes there.”
There will surely, though, be revisions to the roster as Cabrera plots a path forward. After looking competitive for the first three months of this season, performances wilted in the summer heat, even as the Dynamo marched towards Open Cup glory. One man who did deliver consistent excellence is Mauro Manotas, who produced a club-record breaking season with 19 MLS goals and 25 across all competitions.
Signed in 2015 and improving every year, the 23-year-old Colombian striker is the perfect example of the Dynamo’s youth strategy coming to fruition.
“We're going to continue to follow the business plan that we have of creating and nourishing young talented players,” Brener said. “As you have seen through the years, we have actually pulled the trigger on more expensive players when the right situation comes about,” he added, citing defender DaMarcus Beasley, former forward Erick “Cubo” Torres and winger Alberth Elis.
“So we take the opportunities as they come. We analyze them as they come, and when it's something that makes sense, makes sense for the marketplace, we do it, otherwise we will continue to nourish and develop young players like Mauro Manotas.”
Like Manotas, Elis burnished his numbers amid a down year for the team in MLS play to cement his reputation as one of the league’s most feared forwards. In 2017, when he was on loan from Liga MX side Monterrey, La Pantera hit the ground running with ten goals and four assists. Signed permanently in the offseason, he improved his stats in 2018, delivering 11 goals and 10 assists in 30 MLS games.
Elis’ fellow wrecking-ball, Romell Quioto, also had a more productive year: six MLS goals, one fewer than in 2017 – but 12 assists compared with only three in his Dynamo debut campaign.
The 23-year-old playmaker Tomás Martínez, signed as a Young Designated Player in July 2017, led the squad with 13 assists this season – the second-best season in club history behind only Brad Davis' 2011 campaign. Cabrera’s side scored one more goal in the league this season than last year, when they finished fourth in the West and progressed to the conference final, falling one step short of reaching MLS Cup with defeat over two legs to Seattle Sounders FC.
But the defense was significantly more porous this time around, and the competition stiffer with the addition of a talented new team, Los Angeles Football Club. A dip in home form, so commanding in 2017, left the Dynamo in dire need of better away results to compensate. But that didn’t happen. And an undeserved 3-1 loss to the Union at BBVA Compass Stadium on July 25 seemed to snap something in the team’s collective psyche. They didn’t win again in the league until a 4-1 demolition of the playoff bound Portland Timbers on September 15.
So there’s plenty for Cabrera to solve – but plenty of talent to work with, too.
Off the field, crowds in East Downtown declined in 2018 and reversing that trend is top of Walker’s agenda. He arrives in Texas with an impressive resume that includes spells in the NBA as Senior Vice President with the Phoenix Suns and Executive Vice President for Business Operations with the Memphis Grizzlies. Also noteworthy is his time as president and CEO of Tickets.com, the live entertainment ticketing website.
“The ultimate objective is to fill the building and grow the business. I think at one point in this club's history, there was a full building all the time, so you know it can happen,” Walker said. “The market is ripe to generate, create new fans, and that's the goal. But there's no really easy answer for that. There's not a relevance button that I can push to suddenly make that happen. We're going to have to look at all facets of what we do from a business and the things we do in the community to be able to really drum up that interest, but that's the challenge.”
To help address that, Brener is eager to attract more Hispanic supporters. “It is not enough what we have done, and it's not enough that we have penetrated the market, especially for me having been born in Mexico City and being of Mexican descent,” he said. “It is a very important segment of the population that I want to attract, and I promise you we're going to be working very hard trying to better ourselves in that respect.”
Walker has big shoes to fill: Canetti was a hugely influential figure during his 13 years with the Dynamo. He joined the club during its inaugural season in 2006. But Brener expects the new signing to slot smoothly in to the front office lineup.
“Our motto here at the organization is to have a team that is competitive and that win us championships,” he said. “Secondly, we want to have a business that is a viable business. And third, and perhaps most important, is to be an organization that is socially responsible to our community. I believe that John and I share very much the same view in these aspects.”