The Houston Dynamo Football Club is making a push to build one of the top developmental pipelines in the country. Dynamo general manager Pat Onstad has made that a priority since joining the team last November, and although it is a long-term process, the fruits of this effort are already beginning to bear.  

Over the past month, the Dynamo have had nearly a dozen young players called into various youth national team camps, including four to the recent U.S. U-20 and U-19 camps.  

Most recently, goalkeeper Xavier Valdez and midfielder Juan Castilla took part in the U-20 USYNT camp while midfielder Brooklyn Raines and defender Mateo Pinilla both participated in the U-19 USYNT camp. Both of these camps took place in Carson, California from April 22-May 1. 

Valdez, Castilla and Raines are all signed to Homegrown player contracts and have regularly trained with the first team while featuring in games for MLS NEXT Pro side Dynamo 2, while Pinilla is a standout on the Dynamo Academy U-17 side.

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According to Castilla, who is the youngest player to feature in an MLS match for the Dynamo, the experience at this camp was a valuable one, both on the field and off it. 

“I felt like it was nice to get a different look at things, a different play style, different ways to approach a game,” Castilla said. “I feel like I learned a lot. And the guys that were there were very welcoming. It was a competitive environment. I feel like I gained a lot from it, both soccer-wise and as a person.” 

Much of the purpose of these camps was to start building the team that will participate in this summer’s Concacaf U-20 Championship, which is scheduled to take place from June 18 - July 3, 2022, in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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All four of the players from the Dynamo who received invitations to these camps are eligible for that tournament. For Raines, this camp felt like an important part of making that roster. 

“It was a huge step towards what I've always wanted. That's one of the reasons why I came to Houston,” Raines said. “I feel that with everything that they've been teaching me so far, they've helped me take that next step into the national team roster. With that being said, I think that if I continue to do what I do best and learn from them, that's just going to be another step forward towards making that Concacaf roster.” 

Raines came to the Dynamo from the Barca Academy in Arizona. Coming from another high-level environment such as that meant that he was familiar with a lot of the other players called into this camp, something that he says helped him get settled in during his time in California. 

“When I first arrived there I actually saw some of my old friends, so I think that helped a lot, just being able to see some of my old friends and have that reconnection at the camp,” Raines said. “While I was there, I had a really good time. Training sessions were fun and really high intensity. All the players were very good. There was no one there that I didn't think was a top-notch player. Overall, it was a good experience because I got to learn a lot.” 

While Raines knew players outside of the Dynamo coming into this tournament, Castilla and Valdez both relied on each other for support while with the USYNT.  

“We supported each other. We helped each other and it made it a bit easier to go into that new challenge with someone that I was already comfortable with,” Castilla said.

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Despite having his teammate he could rely on in the midfield, Valdez said that adjustment to the camp was not always smooth, but that once he got in the swing of things he learned a lot from his time there. 

“It was a good experience. It was rough at first because I had to adjust to the playing style and here at the Dynamo we play a different style than what the (USYNT) wants to play,” Valdez said. “It was difficult for me at first, but luckily I had some good coaching and in the meetings I also learned about my responsibilities and I was able to adjust in training.” 

Part of that good coaching that he had was Houston Dynamo 2 goalkeeping coach Jason Grubb, who was brought into the camp to instruct the goalkeepers. Grubb has worked with Valdez since he first arrived at the Dynamo Academy, and their relationship was a big asset to the 18-year-old keeper both during his time at the camp and since he has returned. 

“We have a very good relationship, on and off the field. At Dynamo 2 he's my goalkeeper coach and also back at the Dynamo Academy, when I was with the academy, he was my goalkeeper coach,” Valdez said. “Our relationship always has been pretty good and he has an ability to translate information to me whenever I need to hear it a different way. Having him there and having him here at the Dynamo is good because we get to watch the video of the training camp here as well. Not many of those keepers that were there have that option to work with him away from the national team environment. I'm very fortunate in that aspect." 

Overall, this competition offered these players a way to evaluate themselves that is different from the normal opportunity they get while training with the first team or with Dynamo 2. For Castilla, this opportunity, and the competition that came with it, served him and the rest of his teammates well. 

“Everyone there is in the same situation. Everyone is trying to break into the first team or already on a pro deal, so it's good to be around people that are kind of in the same boat as me,” Castilla said. “Obviously, we all want to make the World Cup qualifying team, and it's good to just see where you are compared to players all around the world that are at the same level as you are. It's good to be able to have a reality check and compete against them because it really shows how good you're doing.”