After The Smoke Clears – Western Conference Semifinals

after the smoke clears

What a fantastic night for FC Dallas and its fans. The crowd – including its makeup as well as its size – the opponent, the game situation. Clearly, it was the biggest moment in franchise history, and it will likely be even bigger for the next home game barring a complete collapse by FCD in Portland. Soak it in, folks. This is a game changer, even moreso than what the team went through in 2010.

There is so much to digest and discuss from this one. Ultimately, it was FC Dallas prevailing in kicks from the mark in dramatic fashion, after absolute belam in the last ten minutes of regulation. The range of emotions that everyone went through was as wide as you will see in professional sports.

And the list of heroes for Dallas is long. Very long. Yes, Jesse Gonzalez tops the list with Walker Zimmerman right behind him, but it took hard work over 120 minutes from the entire team to wear Seattle down to where the goals came when Dallas needed them.

One quick aside – for those who didn’t come into the game with an understanding of the away goals rule, now do you see the drama of it? The sheer craziness that it brings, the wild swings? Oh my oh my.

The Positives

This is going to be a very long list, not only because of the length of the game, but also because of the wild swings and different ways the team needed different players.

• Oscar Pareja was once again the Puppet Master. Other than JeVaughn Watson’s initial ball in, all of the scoring came from the substitutes.
• On top of his substitutes, his decisions on the takers in kicks from the mark were brilliant. Sure, Mauro was a no-brainer. But Ryan Hollingshead? Walker Zimmerman? And while Tesho Akindele was somewhat expected, was he expected before other attacking talents like Fabian Castillo, Michael Barrios or Blas Perez? From where we sit, it sure looked like he picked players that Frei would have no tape on, who then went on to finish their kicks with aplomb.
• Speaking of tape, it sounds like Drew Keeshan is also due some credit for preparing Gonzalez for the kicks from the mark.
• While they took a few knocks, and did let Chad Marshall score a potentially series ending goal, Zach Loyd and Matt Hedges kept the dangerous attack of the Sounders off the scoresheet and in many ways, absolutely neutered Obafemi Martins.
• Welcome back to the lineup, Kellyn Acosta. The midfield for Dallas was much more athletic and physical with you back in the lineup.
• It was fantastic to see Mauro Diaz fully engaged – not only in the offense, but also defensively. His work rate was encouraging.

• The wings – especially the pairing of Watson and Barrios – were unwavering in their pressure and speed. It should not be a surprise that the opening goal came from the right side of the Dallas attack with Watson breaking down Seattle’s left fullback to put in the cross that Akindele finished. But Barrios was consistently dangerous and Castillo kept numerous Sounders players engaged.
• Blas Perez came on and while he did not score himself, he was often dangerous and ultimately, he had the put-back that Zimmerman finished to keep Dallas alive.
• Tesho Akindele has made a habit of coming on as a sub and being more than the opponents can handle.

Watson crosses the ball in for FC Dallas’ first goal on the night, scored by Tesho.

• Back to Watson for a moment – not only has he been very productive in attack, but he also has been solid in defense. Considering the perception of him when he first got to Dallas, the Jamaican has become a solid, quality veteran player for this team.
• Of course, everyone is happy to see how Walker Zimmerman did scoring, but let’s not forget that he stepped into the game for Zach Loyd and did the dirty work on the defensive end as well.
• But again, it was the Jesse Gonzalez show in the kicks from the mark, and he was up to the task for so much of the run of play as well. His save on Obafemi Martins late in the second extra time half was absolutely necessary. While his positioning was good enough he did not need to do anything fancy to make that save, he was ready for its power as well, and make sure that the late opportunity did not amount to anything.

Jesse Gonzalez makes his 2nd PK save in the shootout.

The Questions

While the game was wildly successful in its ultimate result, there were some concerns and questions.

• Not the least of which is Texiera. A player who has been a key role player, doing the dirty work and fitting into the game flow that maximizes the effectiveness of Diaz, Castillo and Barrios, the Uruguayan has consistently been subbed in the second half, often for Blaz Perez but sometimes for Akindele. Is his effectiveness diminishing? Now is not a good time to have that kind of dip in form.
• The centerbacks are beat up. Loyd took another blow to the head and Hedges has been a whole series of nicks for the last run of games. Frankly, the week off is going to benefit both of them significantly.
• Hollingshead did not have one of his better games. His clumsy challenge last in regulation led to the series that ended with Chad Marshall’s goal. For a player going through his first full season as a starter, and out of position at that, it is unclear if he is hitting a wall or it is just that he is a midfielder playing defense? Either way, the kinds of mistakes he made against the Galaxy in the second game in Dallas are the types of things that ought to make Dallas fans a bit nervous going into the series with Portland.
• Considering that the extra week of rest will help everyone other than those playing internationally, and even that benefits Dallas as Nagbe will likely play for the US and he is so key for the Timbers, the only real question is the lack of danger on set pieces. Granted, Dallas scored their second goal from a rebound off a corner kick, but overall, the kind of free kick that Dempsey scored with, or consistent danger the way Seattle usually is with corner kicks is something this team lacks, and the deeper the team goes, the more vital set pieces will be.

The Alarms

Not really any. All of the questions above are just that – questions. Areas of mild concern, not something that is a huge problem. If anything, as long as Texiera continues to be the glue that connects the other attackers, even his lack of production is not a huge problem.

The Bottom Line

This team is peaking at the right time, and every moment of success builds on their confidence. There is every reason to consider them the favorites to advance to the final, although Portland is also a young team feeling its oats. The challenge Portland is going to have it is took all of their effort to beat Dallas in their game in Portland as they made shutting down Castillo their goal. If they try that now, that will leave Barrios open and Diaz is playing at a whole new level since that game as well.

And if Oscar Pareja is back in that Chess Master Mode that he was early in the season, there is a good chance that no one will stop FC Dallas. Then again, all of the remaining teams are more teams than star shows, so the games will definitely get tighter. Portland comes into the series on their own run of momentum, and if Dallas survives that series, the final will be against another solid team. Dallas and New York are clearly the better teams, but it is also clear that they do not have the kind of talent gap that, say, the Galaxy had with Robbie Keane, although Brandon Wright Phillips is probably the closest thing to that level of clutch player.

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