Emerging from the trenches with a point, Oscar Pareja and his men can be pleased with their performance Sunday evening. A point against Vancouver, one of the more attacking sides in MLS and one that has only lost twice at home this year, is nothing to scoff at. Dropping a lead after toiling through an open match with a new formation, reassembled starting XI, and an all-out onslaught from the hosts, however, is.
From the outset things were strange. Three center backs started in the lineup; two outside backs were present as well. A central triumvirate of Moffat, Ulloa, and Michel didn’t portent high-flying offensive power, either. But given the absences of JeVaughn Watson (death in the family), and Andres Escobar (out with a knock), who sadly had just begun finding some outstanding form, this was the type of gauntlet Papi threw down to his players and the Whitecaps.
That gauntlet appeared to be little more than open freeway lanes to the Whitecaps. Darren Mattocks’ goal in the 11th minute was a counterattack down the middle of the field with three flat-footed center backs trailing behind aghast. That 5-3-2 formation is a squirmy one. It is fluid, and flexible, but easy to mess up. Without tight marking on mattocks and narrower positioning from Hedges, Keel, and Zimmerman, the Whitecaps took advantage.
The rest of the game was baffling. Vancouver lashed thirty shots at Raul Fernandez, but only landed less than a third on target. There were two handball penalties in the box and both evenly split between the teams. Only Carlyle Mitchell may know exactly why he chose to throw a palm over his head with the ball oncoming in the 38th minute. But that second Vancouver goal – their handball penalty – was clearly outside the box. Center official Kevin Stott was a bit eager to level playing field after the odd call on Mitchell that resulted in the Dallas PK, or so it seems.
Given the circumstances of the match – the injuries, absences, new formation, and enemy shelling – a draw was fair, but excruciatingly fair. The victory and three points were for the taking after Michel’s penalty. The lead lasted all of fourteen minutes until Vancouver’s equalizing spot-kick. But to win in such style would have been a major coup for Pareja and probably only added more to the lore surrounding the man. He has already done wonders in Dallas so far.
A positive light to be shown on the game is that Dallas came out of Vancouver with something. One solitary road victory and four draws up until kickoff meant the chance of FCD leaving Canada with something to hand their hat on very slim.
Certainly another positive was the team’s flexibility in weathering the storm. Evergreen Matt Hedges’ halftime sub was a shock to all. Until after the game when concussion symptoms were revealed as the cause for the switch many were left in the dark. Despite the huge, unequivocal negative of a potential injury spell for FCD’s best defensive player, the rest of the squad plugged on with Diaz back on the pitch in a 4-4-2. Changing tactics on the fly certainly isn’t easy, but reverting back to the 4-4-2 was still a solid decision by Pareja. It also allowed for a recovering Mauro to get more game time going into an intense piece of FCD’s season.
The final, and perhaps biggest, positive was Blas Perez. His ability to work with Akindele (who is really in a dead heat for rookie of the year in MLS), track down free balls, and find himself on the end of services in the box seemed renewed. Pareja’s strategy of resting the man for quite some time up through the World Cup break is starting to bear fruit. Blas on a good day is fiery, active, and quick-witted. He was all three of those against Vancouver. Given Tesho’s rise to prominence in the squad throughout the summer, it may be a portent of good things to come.
Furthermore, the new spring in Blas’ step may help the team offensively accommodate for the absence of Hedges. If his concussion symptoms turn into anything protracted, FCD will be a huge loss. No one can argue against the fact that Pareja’s men are troubled in the shutout department. But if there is any glue fastening the parts of Pareja’s back line, it is Hedges. So, pray for a quick return, and if not, moves will happen. George John’s recovery isn’t coming any quicker.
This leaves Dallas potentially missing its starting center back heading into the busiest month in the season. Chivas await next week in LA, followed by two home matches against Colorado and Philadelphia, and then a return to California against San Jose. Mind you, these four games will be within thirteen days of each other until the schedule levels out at the end of the month. It’s paramount FCD lose no ground to the Rapids, Chivas, RSL, or even San Jose in this time, as all may be contending for the fourth and fifth playoff spots (don’t forget Portland, either).