Things haven't exactly gone to plan for Hector Herrera and the Houston Dynamo. After the July arrival of the star Mexico midfielder as arguably the club's biggest signing ever, the Dynamo has since plummeted in the Major League Soccer's Western Conference standings, officially eliminated from contention for MLS Cup playoffs for the fifth season in a row.
With their current season all but over and Herrera recovering from a recent injury, Houston and their star player must now look towards rebuilding for 2023. They will do it with a new coach following the dismissal of Paulo Nagamura last week. But to be fair to Herrera, he might have seen these struggles coming.
"It's something that I anticipated, that it wasn't going to be easy at all," the 32-year-old Mexican midfielder told ESPN about his first few months with Houston.
As opposed to joining a powerhouse MLS team, Herrera instead opted for a work-in-progress club earlier this year after signing a contract through 2024, with an option for 2025. The two-time MLS Cup champions have not made the playoffs since 2017, which is why Houston was an interesting challenge for the El Tri star who was earning UEFA Champions League minutes with Atletico Madrid just six months ago.
"It isn't the most high-profile team or team that has the best players in MLS," Herrera said, "[but] if we have the opportunity to do great things, win trophies...I think that will have more merit than arriving in a team that is complete and full of stars, who fights for the league title every year.
"That is what also attracted me [to Houston], to be able to help."
Getting what is likely a lavish contract would be obviously attractive as well, but aside from the finances, it does make sense why Herrera would be intrigued by what Houston were doing. There seemed to be a different approach being created with majority owner Ted Segal, who has led the charge since 2021 with new front office hirings (including a first-ever technical director), stadium renovations, and the signings of Sebastian Ferreira and Teenage Hadebe as Designated Players.
Dropped points and losses -- most notably a 6-0 drubbing by the Philadelphia Union in late July -- began to pile up as the Dynamo slid down the Western Conference table. Nagamura had issues with finding his best XI or formation, consistently altering his tactics game-to-game to make space for Herrera. The team's results got worse, eventually leading to the firing of Nagamura's ouster after the Dynamo moved to last place in the West. On Sept. 10, following a 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City, Houston's slim chances for a playoff spot were over.
"For whatever reason we weren't able to utilize him [Herrera] as well as we'd hoped and unfortunately for him on the field, certainly results-wise, it hasn't gotten us to where he'd expected, nor us," Dynamo general manager Pat Onstad said.
"It's been a difficult start, that's true," Herrera added. "Many times, we've had bad luck with results that don't go our way or small moments that make us pay."
A recent leg injury for the Mexican star has been an additional setback, which has left him out of a handful of games since late August. He was, however, called up by Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino for a pair of upcoming friendlies and will likely be with El Tri in November at the World Cup, which would be his third appearance at the tournament. Once he's fully fit, both the player -- and perhaps most importantly the team -- will need to continue with their adaptation to one another. Onstad noted that some members of Houston's roster aren't accustomed to having a player of Herrera's caliber alongside them.
"He does things that our players at times aren't used to seeing. Whether it's playing balls in from behind early, whether it's switching play," Onstad said. "These are things that will get better with this group."
Finding out where exactly to play him will be another significant step in the right direction. Previously for club and country, Herrera has been able to play as a defensive midfielder, box-to-box midfielder, and as an attack-minded midfielder. Onstad noted that playing as an No. 8 is where they envision him and that's what they pitched to him when he signed. Through that, building a better connection with Panama international and fellow midfielder Adalberto "Coco" Carrasquilla has become another priority as well.
"That's something that we just haven't really figured out between him and Coco. Coco also hasn't played at his best when HH has been on the field," stated Onstad. "When Hector and Coco can get on the same page, that'll make a huge difference for us as a club."
Herrera, known for his determination and leadership, focused on themes of building squad unity, concentration on the pitch and decisiveness when asked how his team could improve, while also preaching patience with the project that just started this summer.
Meanwhile, Herrera himself is still adjusting to his life on and off the pitch. He's thrilled about moving to Houston, but hasn't had a chance yet to explore as much of the city as he would like. He's felt welcomed by his teammates and new place of residence, but admitted he needs to practice his English more and only speaks in Spanish. He's now working with the interim staff as the front office conducts the head coach search. Nonetheless, he reiterated that it's still too early to make judgements about his time with the Dynamo.
"The project isn't just for a month, two months or three months," Herrera said. "We can prepare ourselves and start the next season in the best way."
Most of that responsibility will land on the shoulders of Houston's new head coach, whoever it may be. In a recent conversation with ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, Onstad stated that an important factor in the hiring is someone "who has MLS experience" and "has a history of being successful in the league."
One possible candidate that fits that profile would be Herrera's current national team manager: Gerardo "Tata" Martino. According to The Athletic's Felipe Cardenas, Martino, a 2018 MLS Cup winner with Atlanta United, is expected to leave his post with El Tri after the end of the 2022 World Cup (although the report does not mention Houston as an option for Martino). But bringing in a former MLS Cup champion such as Martino, who has coached Herrera, would be a perfect fit, even it might also be wishful thinking.
Either way, no matter who steps in, the task at hand will be a demanding one as Houston once again attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate themselves for the next season.
As for Herrera, he should be given the benefit of the doubt in the project with the Dynamo that is far from over, but if things don't change by 2023 for the player or the club, it'll become tough to have a rosy view of the new era for Houston that he's now a massive part of.