Usually, when we do After The Smoke Clears, we try to cover a variety of points, hitting the key things to take away from the game.
Today, though, we think there is one big point that overshadows all others. In large part, the victory over Portland MAY indicate a very large turning point for the team.
As background, let’s talk about this run. Ever since June 26, where Dallas beat the Houston Dynamo 2-0 behind a unique lineup and after Mauro Diaz and a couple of other players signed contract extensions, this team has played very well. In fact, this victory was the fifth in a row, four at home, and only the second game in that stretch where the team even gave up a goal. Even though often times the opponents have been winged a bit, even good teams come up a little short here and there, and FC Dallas has not.
But in this run, a lot of what we saw was the maximization of what we knew was there to be had, rather than the emergence of something new. The turning point mentioned above? The emergence of FC Dallas’ other young Colombian winger, Michael Barrios.
The game on Saturday was Barrios’ third straight start on the right wing, but his confidence began with a 60th minute sub for Ryan Hollingshead on July 4 against New England that led to his first goal for the team in league play, a professional finish at the end of a good run. While he did not get on the scoresheet in his other two starts in this run, he played well and was dangerous.
And then came Portland. And what made Portland so important was that the 3-1 loss in Oregon that Dallas suffered highlighted a huge question for Dallas – can Pareja and company develop danger opposite Fabian Castillo, still the most dangerous player on the field for the North Texas club. In fact, that was the first time that an opponent had gone out of their way to focus specifically on Castillo with the goal of denying him any chance to influence the game. And the scary thing for FCD fans was that it worked so well.
The need for Dallas to develop danger on the opposite wing is not new. It was apparently last year when Andres Escobar was unable to consistently be that answer – when he was dangerous, Dallas was unstoppable. But when he was pedestrian – which happened all too often – Dallas was very one dimensional.
But when Barrios started hot against Portland, a few eyebrows were raised. In fact, it only took 1:14 for Mauro Diaz to pick the young Colombian out for a deep run behind the Timbers’ defense. As the minutes ticked by and Dallas weathered some pressure from the Timbers, anticipation raised, especially as Barrios helped out with that effort.
And then, in the 11th minute, Portland had a corner kick. David Texiera won the initial ball and pushed it out of the area. There was a challenge for the following 50-50, and it was Michael Barrios coming back with pace from his position at midfield – his first of three engagements in this series – to win the ball, from veteran MLS hardman Jack Jewsbury no less, for Acosta to bring forward. After taking some space, Acosta found Texiera open in the center circle, and the Uruguayan quickly found – you guessed it – Barrios making a run on the right wing.
Barrios took himself some space before feeding the ball back to Acosta just outside Zone 14 (the area right in front of the penalty area) and the Plano native took a dribble before finding Barrios making a run into the Timbers’ area and the winger made no mistake with the finish.
Dallas did not take their foot off the gas. After a few other penetrations, Diaz went to Barrios on the run again in the 17th minute and it took a quick response from Portland netminder Larsen Kwarasey to keep Barrios from getting his second goal of the game right then.
But Barrios would not be denied, and even though he was not the intended recipient of the passing series that led to his goal in the 22nd minute, he was around and involved such that when Nat Borchers took the ball from Castillo in his own area, all he could do was weakly clear the ball where Barrios scooped it up and shot quickly. A deflection made it hard for Kwarasey to save it and Barrios had his second goal of the game.
Now Portland has a real problem. Their gameplan to focus on Castillo simply cannot work – but if they take their eyes off of Castillo he will hurt them, and if they don’t find a way to deal with Barrios, he could get a hat trick.
Which sets the table for what happened in the 69th, as Kellyn Acosta was able to slalom his way through the middle of the Timbers’ Zone 14 with confidence and bury a goal that was all kinds of exciting.
But the moment for me that really captured where Barrios is with this team was in the 73rd minute. Barrios had once again taken the ball deep into the Portland corner and he had a moment to pause with the ball. Maybe it was because I was 20 yards away, but I saw him wipe his brow in a very nonchalant way, and it just struck me at that moment that here was a player for which the game had slowed down. Sure, being up 3-0 makes that a bit easy, but after watching every moment of his play this season closely because of how important his position is to the overall success of the team, it seemed very different than the harried runs and plays from him before the past few games.
Here was a player who was not having to think about positioning or responsibilities – here was a player who, to borrow a phrase from Good Will Hunting, “could just play.” Time will tell if this was just a chance window of success or if it really means what we think it might, but to beat the team that was the first team to truly shut down your most dangerous player earlier in the year by a 4-1 scoreline, and the opposite wing of that most dangerous player to have the first two goals? Mark this game down as the potentially massive turning point for FC Dallas.