Houston reborn under Cabrera — is he the most underrated coach in MLS?
There is almost always a pause.
It doesn’t last long, but certainly long enough for the person asking the question to know that another thoughtful, considerate response will come from the lips of Wilmer Cabrera. In many ways, it embodies the 50-year-old Colombian, who is nearing the end of a very successful first year as head coach of the Houston Dynamo.
Like each answer given by Cabrera, so is the treatment that the former Colombia international doles out to his players. It is deliberate, studied and done with care, and it’s a big reason why this unheralded manager has lifted the Dynamo from the dregs of last place in the Western Conference in 2016 to the conference final in 2017.
“It is a domino effect,” Cabrera said to ESPN FC via phone. “If your players are comfortable and confident, they will perform well. Each individual has to be at their best to help the team. Soccer is an expression of one’s personality.
This has been a welcomed change in Houston. When the Dominic Kinnear era ended in 2014, the club endured a tumultuous two-year period in which Owen Coyle was at the helm for the 2015 season, before abruptly resigning in late May 2016. Wade Barrett then served as interim boss as the Dynamo stumbled to a last-place finish.
Cabrera’s arrival brought a sorely needed new identity. The Dynamo have played an exciting brand of soccer in 2017, putting teams to the sword on the counterattack, resulting in 18 more goals scored and a rise from 10th to fourth in the West, drawing praise from peers around the league.
“Playing against him is a challenge because of the knowledge we have of each other,” said FC Dallas coach and fellow Colombian Oscar Pareja. “This year he has selected a good group of players that helped his project the way he wants [to play]. I admire [Cabrera’s] perseverance and dedication to the game. I think very highly of him as a professional and person.”
Yet somehow despite this change in fortunes in Houston, Cabrera was left off the list of finalists for MLS Coach of the Year. That is not to say Toronto FC’s Greg Vanney, Atlanta United’s Gerardo Martino and the Chicago Fire’s Veljko Paunovic were not deserving of recognition, but when you consider team payrolls, Cabrera’s work this season with the lowest payroll in MLS is worthy of being in the top three.
You won’t hear Cabrera complain about it, though, because he knows that the great equalizer to financial might is education.
“I try to make my players feel important,” Cabrera said. “I pay more attention to the ones not playing. They need to feel like you care and that you are helping them learn. That’s what players want. If they feel like you are helping them develop, that’s good.”
As a player, he thirsted for knowledge from coaches. When forced into a situation in which he was unsure or unprepared, the results were not good, leaving Cabrera frustrated. It’s why he sees himself less as a coach and more as a teacher, and it’s a message he has carried with him throughout his coaching journey.
“Wilmer was always an organized coach,” said Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia, who played for Cabrera at Chivas USA in 2014. “He had a clear idea and message for our team. Something we spent a lot of time on in Chivas was defensive shape. He identified that early on as a need of ours, and I always was impressed how committed he was to it every day.”
Perhaps no player in MLS is more identified with thriving in Cabrera’s outdoor classroom than forward Erick “Cubo” Torres. The young Mexican struck 15 goals with Cabrera’s Chivas USA in 2014, before a miserable two-year drought in Houston in 2015 and 2016. But once reunited with Cabrera, known as “the Cubo Whisperer” in MLS circles, the goals came flooding back, with 14 during the regular season.
The work Cabrera has done with Torres and others is warmly welcomed in the Dynamo locker room.
“He’s a coach that has come to give the Houston Dynamo a new look. No doubt he deserves to be a coach of the year candidate,” six-year Dynamo midfield veteran Boniek Garcia said to ESPN FC. “He’s coached the team very well; that’s why were in the conference final.”
While the odds of the Dynamo overturning a 2-0 aggregate score in Seattle on Thursday night are long, the fans in Houston know that their unassuming, underrated coach is one who can inspire a comeback for the ages.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .