In a game with 36 shots and more than its fair share of veterans, it was the youngest player on the field who broke through for the only goal, but it did not come as a surprise.
Making his first start for the Houston Dynamo, 19-year-old Colombian Mauro Manotas cut across goal in the 43rd minute to deliver a near-post header that booked a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids and sent his club on to the quarterfinals of the US Open Cup. Despite his short time in MLS, it is the type of play Houston fans have already grown to expect from Manotas.
What's more, it was an exclamation point on a good all-around performance from a 19-year-old playing beyond his years.
"He shows, I really feel, a maturity beyond his years in terms of how he plays the game,” Houston head coach Owen Coyle said after the win. “I had no fears with a young kid leading the line tonight. For the two big center backs they had, he dominated them.”
Manotas was a menace in his first start against a mainly first-team Rapids side. He was tasked with leading the line against bigger, older center backs in Joseph Greenspan and Shane O'Neill. Instead of getting bounced around, Manotas used his speed and a physicality bred from playing in a tough Colombian league to play well beyond his years.
"He has that football intelligence, soccer intelligence, because he’s grown up within the game and he has that. I think there’s more to come from him in terms of understanding how we play,” Coyle said. “I told him have a look at Will [Bruin] when he plays and understand where that smart running comes in and preserving your energy … and tonight I thought he did that.”
"He’s a strong kid. He might be just shy of six-foot, but he’s very slight, but that doesn’t mean that slight people aren’t very strong,” forward Giles Barnes said about his young teammate this week. “He’s only 19. He’s got so much ahead of him. It’s going to be exciting.”
Manotas' goal made him the youngest player to score in a competitive game for Houston, and it was no surprise, given the level of his play, when Coyle tipped that he will be part of the mix moving forward. The Dynamo boss nonetheless cautioned that he will be practical with Manotas and bring him along at a proper pace.
For Manotas himself, seeing the ball hit the net for first time for a new team was a feeling the young player could not help but get excited about.
“It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world to be able to score a goal. It’s just indescribable,” Manotas said through a translator. “I’m just happy I was able to justify the trust that Owen placed in me to put me on the field and to be able to score and be able to help take those three points.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.