By Phil Luetchford (@luetchy10)
US Open Cup. Supporters’ Shield. Coach of The Year. Defender of the Year. You might not believe it, but Dallas will be even deeper and scarier in 2017.
Finally, some hardware! In 2016 FC Dallas ended a 19-year trophy drought by winning the US Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, but fizzled out in the playoffs without the magic of Mauro Diaz, who went down due to an Achilles tendon tear. Interesting how the injury occurred against Seattle and then it was the “#NotMyMLSCupChampion” Sounders that benefited in the playoffs, isn’t it? We all know the unofficial ASA stance is that the Supporters Shield should determine the winner. Because sample size and all that.
Oscar Pareja was finally rewarded by being named MLS Coach of the Year in 2016. Fans in Frisco have been clamoring for his recognition since he turned a team that finished above only Chivas USA in 2013 into a fourth place finish in 2014. In 2015, Dallas won the West and lost out on the Supporters’ Shield (on goal differential) to the New York Red Bulls. If Dallas were in the Eastern Conference, you can rest assured that the Shield would’ve been theirs. But that’s all in the rear view mirror after capturing the Supporters’ Shield in 2016. Dallas will be at or near the top of the West again in 2017.
The MLS Defender of the Year award went to Matt Hedges. Oh captain, my captain! FC Dallas fans are still bitter over his 2012 Rookie of the Year snub (Austin Berry ain’t even in MLS anymore, y’all). The funny thing is that many Dallas fans thought Walker Zimmerman was just as good, if not better. Hey, we can’t complain when both were called into USMNT camp by The Bruce, along with Kellyn Acosta. Walker earned rave reviews in his Man of the Match performance against Jamaica. That’s not too shabby for a guy that trialed in Norway with Viking FK before the season and wasn’t picked up. Boy are we glad to have him back.
There were some life lessons to be learned for Fabian Castillo last summer. His agent convinced him to bolt the warm confines of Toyota Stadium for Trabzonspor in Turkey without permission from FC Dallas. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Fabi came to Frisco at age 19 and lived with the Pareja family while acclimating to live as a professional in MLS. So much for loyalty! Castillo struggled for the first six months in Turkey, where there were more political uprisings than Castillo goals. It was a weird time for FC Dallas fans on Twitter, too, having received bizarre knife tweets from Trabz ultras when it was revealed that Fernando Clavijo didn’t want to sell Castillo. Good riddance!
Consummate professional and all-around fantastic human being Ryan Hollinshead was in a freak car accident over the offseason. It was an icy Friday night in January, and let me tell you, Dallas drivers do not know how to handle snow and ice. He was going to help a friend who was stranded on the side of the President George Bush Turnpike. The freaky thing is that I was on the same stretch of highway only hours before. It really makes you think that this could happen to anyone. While standing on the side of the road, another car hit him, throwing him 30 feet in the air. He laid on the ground for ten seconds without feeling or movement, thinking that he was either dead or paralyzed. Luckily, he only fractured three vertebrae. He is ahead of schedule on his recovery, having already removed the neck brace and hit the gym. It will be great to see him back on the field this spring.
With Fabi gone, there was no permanent replacement on the left wing during the season. You can’t fault Michael Barrios for suffering under double teams for the entire fall. Enter Roland Lamah, a 29-year-old winger who has played for the Belgian national team. When deciding if he wanted to come to MLS, he called up his buds Jelle Van Damme and Laurent Ciman. That’s quite the social circle. Already in preseason he has demolished a Lanus defender during FC Dallas’ whirlwind tour of Buenos Aires with matches on seven of ten days against first team squads from the Argentine Primera. Against Árabe Unido in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final he was dynamic yet composed, finding Kellyn Acosta at the top of the box for this golazo.
Is this the number nine fans in Frisco have been waiting for!? Cristian Colmán arrives from Paraguay, having scored 11 goals in 18 starts and 31 appearances for Nacional. Dan Hunt finally opened his wallet and splashed a club-record transfer fee of more than $2 million for Colmán’s signature, beating out Sao Paulo and Gremio. How will he and Maxi Urruti split time? It’s not like Urruti had a disappointing year, with 9 goals and 3 assists, 13.39 xG+xA, and 0.5 xG+xAp96. I haven’t even mentioned 2014 Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele.
With Mauro Diaz out until the summer, Dallas jumped at the chance to bring in The Maestro, Javier Morales, to direct the attack. After his acrimonious separation from Real Salt Lake, Javi couldn’t contain himself when he learned that Dallas was going to his hometown of Buenos Aires for preseason. Still, Morales’ numbers really dropped off last year, with only 0.38 xG+xAp96, but his like-for-like replacement of Diaz in a high-flying Dallas offense might give him a boost even at age 37.
Everyone assumed that FC Dallas would continue in the 4-2-3-1 with Morales taking Diaz’s spot until Mauro regains his health. But while in Buenos Aires, Pareja deployed the first-teamers in a 4-4-2 more often than not. There was even a taste of a back three!
Starting in the back, Chris Seitz is expected to be the starting keeper, but Jesse Gonzalez will fight to retake his spot. Pareja has told the media that he asks Goalkeeper Coach Drew Keeshan before each game who had the better week in practice. Jesse might be the better shot-stopper, but Seitz is the better all-around goalie. Until Seitz does something egregious, there is no reason for him to not get the nod.
At left back, newcomer Anibal Chalá has been praised for his speed, but can he take over from the experienced Honduran International Maynor Figueroa? Chalá is a U-20 Ecuadorian international that reminds of Castillo at that age, with blinding pace but needing to be coached up. He was in a documentary about the village where he grew up called “Dreamtown.” The clips that are on YouTube give you an insight into his turbulent childhood. With all that said, the left back job goes to Figueroa for now.
Pareja has two of the league’s top defenders at the heart of his defense in Zimmerman and Hedges. If there was a critique to be had about the roster, it is that there is no experienced third center back. If that’s the biggest problem, you know you have a winner. Aaron Guillen, a 23-year old homegrown, should see time while they are out on national team duty.
Atiba Harris is the incumbent right back, but appears to have lost his spot to a name you might recognize. Hernán Grana played seven games for Columbus Crew in 2015 and was impressive in his short time there. His homesickness led him back to Argentina, but he’ll be at home in the Dallas locker room, where speaking Spanish is a prerequisite. Homegrown Reggie Cannon has been likened to DeAndre Yedlin and will definitely start a few games this year. Ryan Hollingshead will be able to fill-in at right back or right mid when he returns.
Carlos Gruezo and Acosta once again hold down the center of the park with Victor Ulloa always ready to step in. Matt Doyle named Acosta his Young Player of the Year, with Gruezo as his runner up. In a salary cap league, that sounds unfair. FC Dallas fans are ready to declare 2017 the “Year of Kellyn” after he delivered two goals, 42/46 passing, and consistently intelligent positioning in the 4-0 demolition of Árabe Unido.
Lamah takes the left wing vacated by Fabi. Barrios’ production dropped off as defenses were able to key in on him, so expect him to return to greater heights with a dynamic threat on the opposite side.
If in a 4-2-3-1, Javi Morales will be in the hole until Mauro Diaz returns this summer. Dan Hunt told us in January that Diaz is 45 days ahead of schedule on his recovery. Diaz had a 10.0% touch percentage last year, while Morales was at 11.9%. These guys are the beating hearts of their teams.
To the surprise of many, Pareja has opted to deploy both Colmán and Urruti at forward in a 4-4-2 for the majority of the first-team minutes in Argentina. Against Panamanian league champions Árabe Unido, Colmán pushed the line with strength and quickness while Urruti dropped back into midfield to harass defenders and facilitate the attack. Might this blossom into one of the best strike partnerships in the league? With CCL, Open Cup, and league games, Tesho will get to play a handful of times and can be counted on for five to seven goals as always.
Papi even tinkered with a back three this preseason. Hoops fans still have nightmares of the back three meltdown in Seattle that ended the season. Pareja used a combination of Harris, Figueroa, Hedges, and Zimmerman as the centerbacks, with Chala and Lamah as wing backs. Intriguing!
Supporters’ Shield is not enough. US Open Cup is not enough. FC Dallas is gunning for the CONCACAF Champions League trophy and the MLS Cup. Anything short of those and the season is not a success.
The impressive thing is that they’re set up to actually achieve these grand goals. The roster has experience and youth. Speed and strength. Above-average or exceptional MLS players at every position. Capable guys off the bench.
With Diaz sidelined and Morales looking to be primarily utilized as a late game possessor, there is no clear chance creator in the lineup. The burden is spread among Lamah, Acosta, Barrios, Urruti, Colmán, and the fullbacks to get the ball into dangerous locations. Opponents will not be able to key in on one player, like Diaz, and hack him to pieces as was the case all too often last year.
But let’s say the goals dry up in the summer and the team goes on a losing streak. Pareja will find a way to motivate his team. Diaz should be available at that point to re-enter the lineup and spark the team. There is no scenario in which this team does not make the playoffs.
Dallas faces off against 2016 Panamanian Apertura winners Árabe Unido in the second leg tonight. The Hoops are handy favorites to advance after a comprehensive first leg victory. CCL is the priority, so a number of homegrowns will get their shot in March and April’s league games.
FC Dallas isn’t as concerned about the Supporters’ Shield this year. Any finish in the top four that avoids a play-in game on the road will be acceptable. It only takes getting hot at the right time to make a run to the MLS Cup. Dallas is locked, loaded, and aiming for bigger and brighter targets.