Even at a reserve team level, it's not every day that a 23-year-old is entrusted with the captain's armband throughout the season - especially the first in a team's history. Defender Talen Maples, however, does not have your typical mentality for a second-year professional soccer player.
"I don't take that lightly," said Maples on donning the armband. "When I lead the team, it's not you do what I say - but we do it all together. I'm not above doing anything - moving goals, taking equipment in - and I make sure to show that to the guys so that they can trust me. That makes us more of a family and brings everyone into the fold. My main goal is to continue that, because that carries on after a season. You remember championships, but culture can carry beyond that.”
Maples came to Houston Dynamo 2 following a season in the USL Championship with Toronto FC II. Drafted out of SMU by the MLS senior team, Maples played nineteen matches with TFC II before signing on to play for his former head coach at Brazos Valley Cavalry FC.
When you speak to Maples about his journey or his mentality, it's not only clear that the familiarity in Houston has been a major asset for him - but family is one of his most important values, both on the field and off.
"My Dad is my role model in that way," says Maples, "He's a leader in multiple places and has brought me around to show me how he does it. But, overall, he loves everyone. That's what I wanted to show when I got here, that I love everyone. Not a fake love in front of people that I want to see it, but I truly care about you on and off the field. Jathan [Juarez] had a flat tire last week, and I told him he needed to text me when he got to the shop - or else I would be there to help him. That's the type of culture I want for everyone. I want people to be able to depend on other players."
Not only has Talen had a successful season on the field, but the move to Houston marks a move much closer to home for the Leander, Texas native. Spending a pandemic-affected season north of the border in Toronto presented plenty of challenges off the field, but Maples has made up for lost time as he is back in Texas.
"My family is extremely supportive, they try to come to every single game," beamed Maples. "So coming closer to home helps a lot. I see a lot of guys here that I've known for a while. This place is just longing for a team that plays for the badge and loves to play for the city. We're trying to show that in the way that we play and the hunger and the fight. But for me, being closer to home makes everything easier. I see them in the stands, I went home on our last weekend off to see my Dad. I wasn't able to do that last year - it adds up and helps me perform better on the field."
Maples’ success on the Dynamo 2 level has seen him cross the street to join first team training on multiple occasions, as well as finding himself available for selection for U.S. Open Cup and MLS matches alike this season. While Maples considers himself lucky to have earned the opportunity in his first season in Houston, he also treats it first and foremost as an opportunity to grow.
"I'm super open minded," said Maples. "I try to learn as much as I can, ask Daniel, Tim and Teenage as much as I can. I want to know what they think about the game with different style. I can sit here and say I know everything, but I'd be wrong - I don't have the experience that they do. At the end of the day, though, I'm here to grind and play the best that I can. I'm here to help them out in any way I can. And if it's my turn to take the next step, then it's my turn."
Nearing the end of his first season in Houston, Maples finds himself in a unique place in the organization. From welcoming academy members to Dynamo 2 training to man-marking Héctor Herrera in finishing drills, the defender has been able to engrain himself within every part of an organization that is aiming to build its culture.
"Culture comes from players a lot of the time," said Maples, "It can't just be one. I'm a firm believer that culture starts in the small thing. You know, so like, if we got the U-20s in the locker room right next to us, every morning, I go in and shake the 20s hands to make sure that they know they're not that far away from us. They're a part of this. We're all a part of the same organization. You have to have everyone together. And I think that our team has done that very, very well."
Ultimately, as Maples and Dynamo 2 look down the barrel of a playoff push in the final four games of their MLS Next Pro season, they aim to turn that culture into a deep run towards the inaugural MLS Next Pro Cup.
"That's the culture that wins games at the end of the season. I always say at the end of the season, tactics go out the window. It comes down to who's going to fight for each player more than the next guy. Everyone's tired, we know everyone's tactics. At this moment, it's about loving the guy next to me more than what the other team has. If we have that, we're going to win because of it."