Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup gives Houston Dynamo players a chance to earn minutes in MLS play


Being an MLS head coach is already an intensely demanding job, but Owen Coyle would love his players to make his task even tougher when the Dynamo host the Austin Aztex in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup fourth round at BBVA Compass Stadium on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS).

With the Dynamo set to be without half a dozen internationals for part of the summer there will be vacancies in the lineup, including this Saturday when the team faces the Portland Timbers. Coyle wants his fringe players to use Wednesday’s cup clash to give him some tough decisions by showing him they belong in the starting XI.

“The problem I want as a coach is that everybody’s playing well and I’ve got problems to pick a team,” he told reporters at Houston Sports Park. “What I’m saying is ‘you’ll get the opportunity, the incentive’s there for you to make us as a staff sit up and take notice and say do you know what, you’re really banging at the door to be in that starting XI for the MLS games.'

“And that’s the great thing about Wednesday night. Tough opponents, good side, no doubt about it, but it’s an opportunity for those lads. All players feel they should be in the team. Well do you know what? I understand that, well show me, don’t talk about it, show us that you should be in the team.”

Among the players who will be hoping to see minutes against Austin are goalkeeper Joe Willis, forwards Mauro Manotas and Chandler Hoffman and midfielder Zach Steinberger.

The 23-year-old rookie has made two substitute appearances so far, in the goalless draw with the Colorado Rapids and the 2-1 win over Toronto FC. “My family was able to see my MLS debut against Colorado so that was really exciting, I was really happy, kind of a dream come true for me. But that’s behind me now, I’ve got my MLS debut, I’ve got the jitters out, it’s now making a tangible career out of it,” Steinberger said.

Formerly of Butler University, he was a first-round pick (eighth overall) by Houston in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.

“It’s another level, obviously compared to college it’s leaps and bounds, faster, stronger, the players are more talented and technically gifted so it’s a huge adjustment for college players coming in but besides that I’m just relishing the moment,” he said.

“The first month I was here I was like every player coming out of college, just overwhelmed with the speed of play and obviously the big names that you get to play with on every team — for example I get to play with DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Davis, Ricardo Clark … it’s the initial month of getting through the speed of play and getting kind of the shock and awe out of your system and then you kind of settle in and play soccer.”

The Aztex may be a third-tier side but the Dynamo are expecting a testing evening. Coached by former Dynamo player Paul Dalglish — a member of the MLS Cup-winning 2006 and 2007 rosters — they dealt Houston their first defeat of preseason with a 1-0 win in February secured via a late own-goal. In their first season in the USL, Austin are currently eighth in the 12-team Western Conference with 16 points from 13 matches.

Dynamo defender David Horst remembers that the Aztex looked talented when they won at Houston Sports Park. “I though they were a very good technical team. They built from the back and they were very dangerous. We maybe at that time weren’t ready for it but we’re a completely different team than we were at that time of the season,” he told reporters.

“Paul’s a good friend of mine, a very good coach and he’s got a good team. We’re very respectful of that,” said Coyle of his fellow Scot. “They pass and move the ball, they’re very pleasing on the eye, they’re expansive, so it’ll be a very good game, there’s no doubt about it.”

Steinberger knows that Austin will arrive at BBVA Compass Stadium with an underdog mentality that could help them play with freedom and confidence. “They’re coming in here, they’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “The pressure’s all on us to come out, play well, show them why we’re an MLS team and why we’re here. They’re going to come out, they’re going to work hard, thinking they can win.”

But if he takes the field, he’ll aim to show Coyle the determined streak that the coach is looking for as he plots progress in the Cup and in MLS and decides how best to deploy his depleted resources to achieve those twin goals.

“Every player on that [Austin] team’s goal is to play in MLS,” Steinberger said. “But for us, I’m on an MLS team and I’ve only got two [appearances] so I’m just as hungry as they are to be part of an MLS team and make a big contribution. Regardless of what league you play in, whether you’re third, second, first league, I think you’re always going to be hungry to achieve more.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to and Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.