What a punch to the gut. Finally, going into a playoff series with a sense of momentum after beating the “favored” Sounders, a lot of the FC Dallas faithful rightfully felt like a chance to host and win MLS Cup was in the offing.
But with a late goal in Portland, the Timbers made it 3-1 after the first leg and Dallas could only muster a 2-2 tie in Texas, and it is Portland on their way to play Columbus in the Final. Ironically, had Dallas found a way to not give up that late goal in Portland, and somehow find a way to not give up a second goal in Dallas, the Texas fans could have been privy to another thrilling finale in either extra time or kicks from the mark, and it would have been Oscar Pareja’s side hosting the Crew in the Final.
Alas, it was not to be. But as disappointing as things feel – and certainly, to get so close after having the best record in the Western Conference – there are bags of reasons to feel good about this team going forward. To be sure, there are some improvements that need to be made, and we will touch on them here too, but the list of positives is much longer. So let’s grab a few quick surface-level comments about this year in FC Dallas.
Overall, the kids done good. In so many places, this extremely young side did things that an array of more veteran – and much more accomplished – teams failed to do. Certainly, LA and Seattle were the two teams that had the look of a potential champion, what with their accomplishments over the last four to five years. Supporters’ Sheilds, Open Cup and MLS Cup Championships aplenty. And yet the Sounders beat the Galaxy, and then Dallas beat Seattle – all after Dallas outpaced all of them for the best record in the West.
And do not underestimate the impact of that playoff series win. No, it is not as big a bump as if they would have made or even hosted the final, but it still was a big game against a big team that resulted in a big result in front of a very biased and large crowd.
So overall, certainly 2015 was an improvement on 2014 in many places. And the eye towards 2016 is even more encouraging. But let’s get the concerns out of the way real quick.
First on the list is one that we have noted for over a year – this team has to have a backup to Mauro Diaz that can play a similar role and keep the team in a similar shape. When David Ferreira was in Dallas, for much of that time they had Ricardo Villar, who was more than serviceable when he was available. Injuries limited that time, but for stretches, Dallas was able to maintain its general flow and shape despite the injury to the 2010 MLS MVP. Yes, Diaz was coming off an awful injury year in 2014, so expecting him to be strong for all of 2015 was not realistic, yet maybe in 2016 that might be possible.
But as we saw too many times this year – enough that it is easy to say it cost them the Supporters Shield – when Diaz was not available, this team was not the same. Not by a long shot. And any absence next year will be just a limiting.
But next year will also come with added games in the CONCACAF Champions League. Another reason to have depth. Certainly, this team can’t afford to run its starting XI into the ground like it did in 2011.
The Zach Loyd Challenge
The UNC product is so very good, and so very reliable, and works so well with Matt Hedges in so many ways, that it is hard to point to him and say he is a problem. For so many MLS matchups, he gets the better of the opponents when he plays as a centerback next to the captain. But when the stakes get higher, especially in the playoffs where things tighten up and set pieces become vital, his lack of height against players like Adi is telling.
If Dallas wants to advance to an MLS Cup Final, or a USOC Final, they are going to have to find a solution here. Is it moving Watson to the left and Zach out side? Or Loyd on the left? And where do they get the centerback replacement? Is it Walker Zimmerman? Very possibly although his passing would need to improve significantly. Or do they trade an asset like Dan Kennedy for a top draft pick and get the best centerback in the 2016 Superdraft? This needs to be discussed in more detail.
Mauro Diaz has had moments of brilliance from free kicks, but has not been anywhere near as consistent as Michel was with service, not nearly as dangerous as other teams’ strikers, such as Clint Dempsey.
At the same time, clearly David Texiera does some good things for team shape, but overall he is not good enough to win championships. Is this where Fernando Clavijo has to find that Castillo-Diaz level player? We think so.
But That’s It
But here is the beauty of it – that is it. It really is. Other than improved depth, which every team strives for and is always wanting, that is all this team needs to be a top MLS club for a stretch of years, not just 2016.
And as we saw in 2011, there is a lot about FC Dallas’ style and makeup that will lend itself to success in the CCL. On the field, FC Dallas has to be very excited about 2016.
In addressing those issues, Clavijo and Pareja will go into this off-season with a ton of assets. Bakare Soumare is not coming back. That is a good chunk of change. Trade Dan Kennedy, another chunk. Blas Perez is out of contract and is not worth his current contract level for 2016, but on paper, it seems that there is a number Dallas can work with that Perez should seriously consider that would save another chunk. Oh, and these are six figure chunks of cash, not a few tens of thousands.
All told, Fernando and Oscar ought to have $500,000 to $600,000 to work with just from those moves alone, paired with at least three or four roster spots. You can get some good MLS-level players for $150,000 to $200,000 a piece. And if you go the college player draft for the centerback issue mentioned above, you actually have $250,000 to allocate to each of the other two issues. Again, you can get a player who can have a good career in MLS for that money.
Or, alternatively, you could go whole hog on a $750,000 level DP, go the college route for the centerback and still get $150,000 towards the Diaz backup.
But the real story of 2015 wasn’t the holes, or how they could possibly be filled for 2016, but the growth and development of a number of players, along with an overall style of play that makes Papi smile and team win. This is a long list, so we’re going to bullet-point it.
- Jesse Gonzalez. Oh my goodness, what a find. And what a play by Pareja.
- Michael Barrios. You could make a good argument that had the team had the young Colombian instead of Escobar last season, they would have at least advanced beyond Seattle.
- Victor and Kellyn. When they backed up Diaz, they were hard to beat. What was especially rewarding was seeing both of them getting forward and contributing on the scoresheet late in the season.
- JeVaughn Watson. We thought he did ok last year, but this year he really took a step forward. That isn’t to say he is the next coming of Roberto Carlos, but he certainly is better than most of his fellow outside fullbacks in MLS.
- Ryan Hollingshead. What a season, son! Yes, there were signs last season that the potential of your college career might turn into something great in MLS, but still, the UCLA product took an entire year off (for a great reason, to be sure, but a year off nonetheless) and had what would have been a breakout season had he been a rookie this year. And adjusting to play outside fullback? Most impressive.
- Blas Perez and Tesho Akindele. While I am sure both would prefer to be starting forwards, they accepted smaller roles and excelled in them. It speaks highly of them, the lockerroom and Pareja that they made it work.
- Matt Hedges and Zach Loyd were so very solid for so much of the season. While there were the occasional mistakes that cost the team at key times, what defender doesn’t have those moments?
- Fabian Castillo continued to develop, even when most teams (other than Houston) found ways to try to shut him down. He still has work to do to break through certain challenges, but he remains the team’s most dangerous player.
- Mauro Diaz. It feels like we finally got to see what this team can be with him at the helm for long stretches this season. And it was fascinating viewing. Especially in moments like the May 9 victory over the LA Galaxy, we got to see the midfield maestro at work, and it was wonderful.
- So young. So very very young. And yet, so dangerous. And in many ways, mature beyond their years. And they came together to be quite the force at a variety of times, and for long stretches, this season. You could clearly see a solid foundation that, given a full season now that they know what they are capable of, really could be something special.
So let’s celebrate the greatness that we saw in 2015 from FC Dallas, and look expectingly at the off-season work that is to come. Once the pain wears off, most are going to look back at 2015 as the beginning of something truly special at Toyota Stadium.