By Jason Poon (@jasonhpoon)
The 2015 campaign was a mixed bag for FC Dallas. On one hand, we saw a young club defy the odds and make a serious claim to be trophy contenders, matching New York Red Bulls on points for the Supporter's Shield only to lose out on goal differential. Then in the playoffs, the Hoops made a strong run, knocking off Seattle in penalties in the semi-finals, but ultimately withered under the pressure of the Portland Timbers in the Conference Finals. In both instances, real, actual silverware was a realistic possibility but ultimately the club fell short and the trophy barren run continues to haunt this franchise. (Last and only significant trophy was the 1997 Open Cup.)
While the club failed to claim any silverware, there were plenty of significant positives from their 2015 campaign that Oscar Pareja and company hope to build on for 2016. FC Dallas is known to have one of the best academies in MLS, which has regularly promoted and integrated academy graduates into the first time. Most notable was the emergence of both El Tri U-23 starting keeper Jesse Gonzalez, who wrestled the starting position from two MLS veterans (Dan Kennedy and Chris Seitz) and USMNT prospect Kellyn Acosta in the midfield. The academy's shining moment was on Sunday, September 6 at Mapfre Stadium against the Columbus Crew when Pareja started four homegrowns across the midfield (Alex Zendejas, Acosta, Victor Ulloa and Coy Craft) along with Gonzalez in net and produced a stunning 3-0 road win.
With the emergence of Jesse Gonzalez, either Kennedy or Seitz became expendable. Seitz had settled in nicely in the Dallas area and has become a fan favorite, which left Kennedy out there. Kennedy had expressed interest in heading back to California where he grew up, and Dallas found a willing trade partner to take him off their books. Dallas completed their keeper roster by drafting and recently signing 2016 First Round draft pick Ryan Herman from Washington, to officially give Dallas the tallest keeper lineup in the league. (Gonzalez - 6'4, Seitz - 6'4, Herman 6'7).
Dallas got by last season with basically an entirely makeshift backline for the year, with Zach Loyd sliding into the middle from his usual right back position, and the outside back positions being manned by converted wingers in Atiba Harris, Je-Vaughn Watson and Ryan Hollingshead. 2016 looks to be a little different, as FCD brought in Maynor Figueroa, giving Pareja the chance to move Loyd back out to the outside back position.
Dallas did mutually terminate the contract of Je-Vaughn Watson to allow him to move closer to his daughter on the East Coast, thus opening the right back position up for grabs, where Loyd, Harris and even Acosta can fill that position easily. The key re-acquisition was bringing back playoff legend Walker "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED" Zimmerman back to the club after he experimented with his Scandinavian roots (there's no truth to that part of the statement.)
If the game is won in the midfield, then Dallas certainly subscribed to that philosophy this offseason by signing every South American midfielder available (slight exaggeration) to bolster an already strong midfield. The defensive midfield was already solid with Ulloa and Acosta, yet Dallas decided to bring in a pair of starting quality players as "depth" in Juan Esteban Ortiz and Carlos Gruezo. The real shocker is that the notoriously stingy Dallas actually forked over a transfer fee to acquire Gruezo from Stuttgart.
As if strengthening the spine of the team wasn't enough, Pareja and company went and picked up Carlos Lizarazo on loan from Cruz Azul and Mauro Rosales to provide more offensive power to this club should Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz or Michael Barrios be unavailable for selection for whatever reason.
All this is to say, the Dallas midfield looks dangerous on both sides of the ball. And with Dallas competing in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2016, there will be plenty of minutes to go around for all the ball winners, chance creators and speedsters.
Dallas' first off season move was to actually acquire MLS Cup winner Maxi Urruti off the Re-Entry Draft, paving way for the club to say farewell to honorable veteran Blas Perez. After two relatively unsuccessful seasons, David Texeira was also let go. This leaves Dallas with only three strikers on paper (Urruti, Tesho Akindele and Craft) but Lizarazo has the ability to play up top too, along with Castillo and Barrios to lesser extents. In 2015 Dallas threw bodies into the fullback positions and it appears that they'll do the same with the striker position for 2016.
Amazingly, these two seasons under Pareja's helm should have been rebuilding years, fixing the mess that Schellas Hyndman's reign left this club in. Pareja dumped the old, failing veterans, giving youth a chance and it's paid off mightily with two consecutive playoff appearances. The question for 2016, is whether this club can now turn their "promising" prospect into any silverware. Because until Pareja and Dallas win a major trophy, their experiment with #PlayYourKids will be remembered as nothing more than a fun experiment.