Current Rio Grande Valley FC Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera celebrates winning the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with Houston Dynamo FC in 2018. The Toros will visit the Dynamo in the Open Cup Third Round on Tuesday night. | Photo courtesy Houston Dynamo FC
Of the three potential opponents Rio Grande Valley FC could have been paired with for its first game in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against a side from Major League Soccer, it was almost assured by fate the Toros would be matched up with Houston Dynamo FC.
For current Toros Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera and midfielder Juan David Cabezas – who were both part of the Dynamo team that won the 2018 Open Cup – the irony was hard to miss.
“We laughed,” said Cabezas. “It’s a great chance for me, Wilmer, Tyler [Deric] to play there. We’re really happy.”
Cabrera was coach of the Dynamo four years ago having made the step up after serving as RGVFC’s first head coach in the club’s inaugural 2016 season. Back then, the Open Cup was initially a chance for Cabrera to test out some of his younger players – “We played even with guys from the Toros in one or two games,” he said – but as the wins started to build it quickly became an opportunity to earn the club’s first silverware in more than a decade.
“When you started to notice that you’re moving forward and moving forward, that’s when everyone started to feel, ‘OK, this is close,’ it’s an opportunity,” he added. “I think when we played against LAFC in the Semifinal, it’s when we really felt like this is a great opportunity, this is a tournament where we’re doing well, and we can win.”
To that point, Cabezas hadn’t been involved. Struggling with injuries for much of the season, the midfielder had only recently returned from Colombia, where he had been recuperating from a long-term hamstring injury that had kept him sidelined since May. Four months later, and only a couple of halves of action in MLS under his belt since his return, Cabrera approached his fellow Colombian about whether he felt ready to go for the Final against the Philadelphia Union.
“It was a surprise for me,” said Cabezas. “Wilmer told me that he wanted to play me, and I said, ‘absolutely, I’m ready, I’m really excited,’ and my teammates really helped me to advance really fast again.”
Cabezas went the full 90 minutes as the Dynamo took a 3-0 victory against the Union at PNC Stadium as Mauro Manotas – a former Toros loanee under Cabrera himself – bagged a pair of goals. It was the highlight of Cabrera’s time with the Dynamo, which came to an end midway through the following season as he and the club parted ways.
“At the end we had a fantastic final game for the championship against the Philadelphia Union,” said Cabrera. “In my opinion, they were the favorites, but at home, we were too strong for them, and that night was special for all of us.”
DaMarcus Beasley and Juan David Cabezas celebrate winning the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with Houston Dynamo FC. Cabezas will return to PNC Stadium on Tuesday with Rio Grande Valley FC to face his former club. | Photo courtesy Houston Dynamo FC
The memories of that night will be rekindled when Cabrera, Cabezas and former Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric return with a squad that has taken on a new look since Cabrera returned to lead the Toros in their new era of technical autonomy. After advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals of the USL Championship Playoffs a season ago, springing a surprise along the way in eliminating Phoenix Rising FC in a penalty shootout to open the postseason, the Toros are continuing to build their own on-field identity.
There are experienced veterans like Cabezas, Deric, and former United States Men’s National Team midfielder Jose Francisco Torres in the squad. Then, there are players like midfielder Juan Pablo Torres and forward Dylan Borczak, both 22 years old, and even 17-year-old USL Academy signing Duilio Herrera, for whom Tuesday’s contest is an opportunity to show what they can bring against top-flight opposition.
“The USL Championship and USL League One, we have a platform to try and help players try to move forward to better leagues, to give possibilities to some players to showcase and become more mature,” said Cabrera. “We need to understand our role, but also with the opportunity to have experienced players who have great experience, great knowledge, great possibilities that they can nurture and give some other level to locker rooms, to teams. That’s something unique the USL Championship is giving here to players in the United States.”
Having led Houston Dynamo FC to the Open Cup title in 2018, Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera is now guiding Rio Grande Valley FC as it plays in the tournament for the first time this season. | Photo courtesy Christian Inoferio / Rio Grande Valley FC
For Cabezas, stepping back onto the field at PNC Stadium having made almost 60 appearances for the Dynamo during his time at the club is going to be in some ways a step back in time. It’s one he’s eager to embrace, four years on from walking off the field a winner.
“A lot of memories, a lot of history,” said Cabezas. “It’s really exciting to go back to the stadium where I learned pretty much the environment and the fans. Obviously, I have a lot of friends there, family members. The thing is it’s good to go there and play on the field where you had really good times in, that city, that stadium with all those fans. I’m excited, eager and really happy to play back there.”
If the Toros can earn a result, of course, it would make that return even more special. For Cabrera, making sure his players are in a place to put in their best performance and enjoy the opportunity is the aim ahead of the biggest game in Toros history so far.
“Good results come when you play well, when you enjoy it, when you love it, when you are motivated, so that’s a great motivation for us,” said Cabrera. “Obviously, we have respect and understanding they should be better than us, they should be the favorites, because they have a better budget and the players they can acquire are on paper much better and more experienced, quality all over, but that’s the beauty of the game.
“It could be the last game until next year, or it could be that we continue enjoying this tournament. It is fun, but we’re enjoying the moment, and I think we’re going to enjoy everything that’s going to happen.”