Oscar Pareja has enough good will from the Dallas faithful: will it at all last the 2015 season?
Papi is riding on waves of confidence after taking a FCD squad left in malaise by Schellas Hyndman back to the MLS playoffs. Losing to the Sounders without actually losing a match still leaves a sour taste in a few North Texan mouths. It is, however, the attacking style and creative counterattacking that spurred several outstanding runs for FCD in 2014. Can Papi’s promise again buoy Dallas for 2015, despite a lackluster transfer window?
2014 Overall Record: 16-6-12
Home Record: 12-1-4
Away Record: 4-5-8
Leading Goalscorer: Blas Perez (11)
Leading Assists: Blas Perez (6)
In: Michael Barrios (M – Free Transfer), Kyle Bekker (CM – Trade with Toronto), Alex Zendejas (M – Homegrown), Otis Earle (D – SuperDraft), Dan Kennedy (GK – Dispersal Draft), Atiba Harris (M – Re-entry Draft Stage 2)
Out: Jair Benitez (D – Option declined), Raul Fernandez (GK – Option declined), Andres Escobar (M – Option declined), Peter Luccin (M – Option declined), Adam Moffat (M – Option declined), Jonathan Top (F – Option declined), Nick Walker (D – Option declined), George John (D – NYCFC selection, expansion draft), Brian Span (M – waived), Hendry Thomas (M – Option declined)
Possible losses on the horizon: JeVaughn Watson (offer made, family issues persist)
Oscar Pareja is no tactical innovator. He does not experiment with odd formations or complex tactics. His players, however, adore him. He is as much a coach as he is a leader, but can temper his command with passion and friendship. Watch any interview with Fabian Castillo speaking about Pareja if you need further reference. His approach can be seen as simple: give yourself to the players and it will be returned.
Faith, if nothing else, is what Papi receives. He commanded his squad’s faith far before he commanded great swathes of it in North Texas upon his return. The 2014 preseason offered so many questions that Oscar quickly answered with a blistering early unbeaten run through the wee months of the season. If there is any way for a club legend to further solidify that status, it is probably only through commanding the hearts and minds of his squad, and, well, winning.
This capital will carry him far. It already has. It would take a Chivas USA type of debacle to dethrone Papi in Dallas. Despite his lack of ambition, and that of the front office, in the transfer market, he will probably once again make up for it with results on the field. Maybe he has seen Moneyball more often than he should. Perhaps he can at every moment get the best from his players. It is why every player seems that much more valuable, and to a certain extent fulfilled with more potential under his command. The gains seen off the field in the form of the new partnership with Arizona United, the new TV deal with TXA21 have been huge for FCD. But the enduring value of Papi’s coaching style and his bond with his team will be be more invaluable.
Holes in the Facade
As sad as it is to see a once-promising club die a slow, painful, sadly comical death, the demise of Chivas USA helped Pareja plug a huge gap in net in the form of Dan Kennedy. Rumor has it that he has overtaken Chris Seitz to start between the pipes on opening day, but that remains to be seen. Either way, his acquisition was a quick answer upon the departure of Raul Fernandez (who, frankly, was not himself from about July onward).
Bigger holes, however, have been created in the absence of Hendry Thomas and JeVaughn Watson. Thomas, the enforcer of the Dallas central midfield, was sidelined by a season-ending injury. Currently negotiations between he and FC Dallas are at a standstill. Things still look grim. If it wasn’t for the rise of Victor Ulloa in 2014 there would be much more to worry about. Kyle Bekker is really the only depth added in the position, and he is a project at this point. It is a palatable situation, if nothing else.
But Watson’s absence is tough to stomach. He comes off his best season in MLS yet. A right back, right wing, or center back, he played consistently well in a plethora of positions. Again, he displays just what Pareja can evoke from a player. Nothing great was expected of him, but it was returned tenfold. His ongoing family issues, and he is wished the utmost best, still persist, and it is more of a waiting game being played at the moment. Hopefully nothing turns tragic and the team sees him return after his family’s issues are resolved. If anyone epitomized Pareja’s Midas touch, it is the speedy Jamaican. Until then, Atiba Harris, Kelyn Acosta, and Zach Loyd can all fight it out in his absence.
There was a dearth of knowledge about FCD’s style of play or even the starting lineup heading into the 2014 kickoff. That is not the case now. Much like struggles Caleb Porter experienced in his sophomore season in Portland, Pareja must continue to innovate, or at least achieve consistency, as this Dallas side is very much a known quantity. At least he will continue to evoke pace, production, and creativity from his players, as he has since his outset. That alone may be enough to keep Dallas a force to cope with in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Much like the Southern forces in the Civil War, they are not aided by totally superior weaponry, but the men guiding them into battle are top-notch.
Ryan Hollingshead leads the charge in this category. No player has probably staked his claim to starting position better this offseason than the former church-building winger and UCLA product. At the Austin invitational he was involved in FCD’s only three goals directly, more than Mauro Diaz, and even more than Fabian Castillo. His two goals came from excellent positioning in the box, both from redirected balls of the post and keeper, respectively.
The goals speak for themselves, and may be less than spectacular. They are not drives from distance; they are not swashbuckling runs from wing through the opposing defense. Hollingshead has shown that he can be valuable through intangibles like positioning, and awareness in the box. Pareja, a man who creates intelligent players (Ulloa) and recreates players (Watson) into intelligent reincarnations, has to find this attractive. Jurgen Klinsmann found Wondolowski’s intangibles as a fox in the box attractive enough to keep him on the plane to Brazil (only for, well, the shank against Belgium to follow). But the UCLA graduate has made his case more than any other player on the pitch to date.
As we head into Saturday
This is still a very cohesive, tight-knit squad that has remained virtually intact after the 2014 offseason. Yet, it is impossible to ignore a few on-the-field situations heading into the regular season. Here they are.
Goalkeepers Dan Kennedy and Chris Seitz will still have to grind it out for the honor of starting between the pipes. Kennedy has apparently edged out Seitz for now. Seitz, however, should not be unfamiliar with this given the past couple of seasons with Fernandez. For Kennedy, these are uncharted waters given the stalwart status he earned in goal at Chivas USA.
The defense has holes at center back. That is, of course, until Zach Loyd is healthy. He hasn’t the height of Matt Hedges, but his positioning, effort, and speed made him an outstanding deputy at center back for the later half of 2014. Zimmerman is still a question mark due to persistent injuries and relative youth. He, more than anyone, has to prove his mettle along the back line.
Atiba Harris’ tenure at right back may be short lived, but the aforementioned factors with Watson, Acosta, and Loyd may solve the question. If Zimmerman proves to be a quality center back consistently, Zach Loyd would be the natural starter on the right.
A monumental question for the midfield surrounds Mauro Diaz and his health. If he is healthy this league will be set alight. Prior to his nearly-season-ending injury in 2014, no one held a candle to him in terms of creativity and vision in MLS (arguably Valeri and Higuain). But he is young and crafty, much like his counterpart Fabian Castillo. Castillo’s merits are well known, but this season is about excelling at what he proved last year. He has his best-ever goal production to beat, and a chance to be a true start in the league.
It is at right wing where further questions are to be asked in the midfield. But, again, Hollingshead looks to have made a case for now, and should start there come first kick. Michael Barrios is the unknown factor here. He is apparently pacey, technical, and can find the net easily (according to, well, Michael Barrios). He is Hollingshead’s main competitor and hopefully one that will generate a healthy battle between the two. Furthermore, the tandem of Ulloa and Michel will continue to start in the center midfield behind Diaz. Depth at that position is minimal given the departures of Moffat and Thomas, and furthered by the project (apparently) that is Kyle Bekker.
Blas Perez is old. He is 34. He is, however, coming off his best year in MLS with 11 goals and 6 assists, leading the team in both categories. This is even with multiple absences due to national team duty, injury, and suspensions. He will get carded. He will make ticky-tack challenges and invoke the hatred of every center back in MLS…repeatedly. But can he at least duplicate his goal production? That remains to be seen.
The same question can be asked of Akindele. We have all seen the perils of the Rookie of the Year award – CJ Sapong has never been the same since his 2009 award. But Tesho is intelligent, and clearly has learned a great deal from Pareja in only one season. The ceiling is still high for the Canadian/American and he is excellent off the bench, if not starting.
David Texeira, ultimately, is almost an afterthought. He has never lived up to the even minimal hype he was originally given. Somewhere he can join Mista, Juan Luis Anangono, Claudio Bieler, Kris Boyd, and Mustapha Jarju for a celebratory failed DP drink. His situation doesn’t make the forward position any more competitive, but he does have a full season under his belt and a little more time to force the discussion of his inclusion in the starting XI.
Walking On Water
Papi could very well do it. In a practical sense he already does in Frisco. Well respected by his players, peers, fellow coaches, and the MLS Twitterati, he has ample capital with which he can continue to experiment and excel. Given the consistency in squad personnel, FCD supporters have every reason to believe in the potency of his ideas and this team’s ability. No one expected an unbeaten run early in 2014. I would say few expect it now. But time after time Pareja has proven that he can conjure magic. Now he has to do it again with the expectation of its possibility. But it couldn’t possibly hang over his head: given his track record, he is probably awaiting this next season and its surprises with overwhelming eagerness. He, as it seems, has enough faith and capital backing him no matter the outcome.
Potential Starting XI vs San Jose: Kennedy; Harris, Zimmerman, Hedges, Hernandez; Michel, Ulloa, Diaz, Castillo; Perez
(image courtesy of zimbio.com)