By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 7, 2022) US Soccer Players – It’s not actually possible to start over in Major League Soccer. While rebuilding is part of the lifecycle of any professional sports operation, it’s always a process. That might be a loaded term in pro sports, but it’s the situation clubs find themselves in even when the intent is a massive overhaul across the board.
Timing plays an out-sized role in just how much freedom a team has to start over. Roster turnover is rarely a single-season process. Add in MLS salary budgets and complicated rules governing how much a team can spend on its roster. That means we’re talking more figuratively about starting over than the more literal definition of the phrase.
With a new investor/operator (Ted Segal), a new general manager (Pat Onstad), and a new head coach (Paolo Nagamura), the Dynamo moves into 2022 with a different decision-maker at every level of the club. The club even added a position to get a new executive involved by hiring Asher Mendelsohn as its first-ever technical director. That’s as close to starting over as any MLS team is likely to get.
Even if we don’t consider the roster, Houston is going through a significant change by any standard. That comes after the club’s fourth playoff miss in a row, the seventh over the last eight seasons. Half or more of the league qualified for the postseason in each of those years Houston didn’t advance. With that in mind, it might be harder to miss the playoffs that often than it is to build a consistent winner.
The first team’s underwhelming performances are just one facet of the bigger issues new management is now addressing in Houston. Because of the Dynamo’s inability to compete for titles, fans have drifted away from the team. It’s difficult to assess the decline in interest simply through a review of the club’s attendance because of two pandemic-impacted seasons. However, even before 2020, the Dynamo saw numbers drop by 5,000 fans per game between 2015 and 2019.
While most of MLS pushed forward into the 3.0 era by adding to the soccer side of their organizations, the Dynamo lagged. When hired, Onstad spoke about the small scouting department in Houston, an issue he wanted to fix quickly. It’s hard to compete on level footing with the rest of the league when you’re understaffed.
From the beginning, Segal has talked about investing in his new asset. When the club announced the arrival of Onstad as general manager, Segal made bold statements about increasing the club’s spending.
“There will be a materially higher spend. Pat and I have talked about that objective,” he said. “I think when you see the salaries released at this time next season, it will be significantly different than today.”
According to MLSPA numbers, Houston had the league’s 22nd highest payroll at the end of the 2021 season. Though MLS has teams every season showing that operating on a small budget can work, that hasn’t been the situation in Houston. Onstad is the man who must fix that problem.
Money doesn’t cure all ills in MLS, but it’s a safe expectation that the new Dynamo will look very different than the old Dynamo. Onstad has three open DP slots to work with and, according to him, can now begin to bring home some of the promised additions with Nagumura on board. The new GM made it clear when he got the job that the Dynamo needed to improve at the top end of its roster. That’s where most of the money goes in an MLS setup.
“Number one is to get better on the field,” Onstad said in November. “We have some core guys who are very good, but we’re missing some top-end talent and difference-makers. Those pieces who can turn games. In our league, it’s pretty close. It’s those players who make differences.”
Nagamura’s hire is a nod to the playing philosophy Onstad wants to employ, relying on Nagamura’s experience with Sporting Kansas City. Their squad is a work-in-progress, and it’s never really possible to completely start over with the roster anyway. The Dynamo will look different in 2022, but not so different as to be unrecognizable. That doesn’t mean the club isn’t starting from scratch. It’s in every role making the tough decisions where they’re starting over.
As is always the case when you’re making something from scratch, getting the recipe right will take some time.
“We need to implement a culture and that is a process, that’s not an overnight project,” Nagamura said on Wednesday. We need to rescue that. And once we settle that and have a good culture in the club I’m sure the pieces that are going to be added on, reinforcements, new signings, will make this a very competitive team.”
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