As David Ferreira clutched his ankle on the turf in Vancouver on April 23, most FC Dallas fans understandably saw a season of so much promise ending prematurely. If there was any team in Major League Soccer built around one player, it was FC Dallas, making a historic run to MLS Cup in 2010 while running nearly every offensive attack through the Colombian MVP. Head Coach Schellas Hyndman would have to think of something and quick.
The run that FC Dallas has gone on since the loss of David Ferreira, the Major League Soccer MVP and Dallas' offensive engine, has been nothing short of remarkable. Since the Colombian went down early in the second half of the Vancouver game, Dallas has gone 7-1-3, surviving a brutal month of May while forming a whole new team identity and cementing Hyndman at the top of "Coach of the Year" ballots halfway through the MLS season.
At the heart of Dallas' surprising dominance has been the complete retooling of the team's style of play and more specifically the matter of team possession of the ball. In the five games before Ferreira's injury, Dallas won the possession battle three times never dropping below 45% of possession in any of the games. However, in that five game span of relative success in the possession game, FCD won just once, a 3-0 defeat of the Colorado Rapids.
By contrast, in the 11 games without Ferreira, Dallas has lost the possession battle nine times with seven of those nine games having 60% or more possession for the opposition. One would normally expect these relatively large gaps in possession to bring losses for Dallas, but surprisingly things have been quite the opposite. This is where the brilliance of Schellas Hyndman's moves comes in.
In the first game after Ferreira went down, Schellas Hyndman put Eric Avila into the attacking midfielder role, like I suggested erroneously, and things didn't go so well. Dallas beat LA 2-1 in a bizarre game, but Avila was largely ineffective and struggled equally in a 0-0 draw with DC United the next weekend. Schellas had seen enough of the 4-5-1 to know that the same formation just wasn't going to cut it and made a change.
Insert Eric Alexander into the midfield, a player who had lost his spot on the pitch just a few weeks earlier. With this move, Schellas ushered in a new formation for FC Dallas that looked like a 4-4-2 at first with Fabian Castillo and Marvin Chavez up top, but has really morphed into a 4-3-3 over the last month.
In this new formation, Dallas has struggled to hold the possession, but it really doesn't matter. With the ultra compact and disciplined shape that Daniel Hernandez, Andrew Jacobson and Alexander hold in the midfield, Dallas hasn't needed to keep possession as teams have found it incredibly hard to break them down. Most of the time offensive attacks are blocked by this trio and if they are breached, a stout combination of Ugo Ihemelu and George John in the middle are there to shut things down.
In fact, of the nine games I mentioned where FC Dallas has lost the possession battle, Dallas is unbeaten with six wins and three draws including a five game shutout stretch where FCD trailed in possession for every game. Incredibly, the one game of the eleven without David Ferreira that FC Dallas has lost, the 4-1 result to Kansas City, FCD held their biggest possesion margin at 64%-36%. Schellas Hyndman has found a way to take Dallas' biggest weakness, their inability to hold the ball for long stretches, and turned it into a positive.
A big part of this is down to the fantastic play of Andrew Jacobson and Brek Shea in the middle. When watching the three man trio in the midfield of Alexander, Jacobson and Hernandez, it's pretty clear what their job is. That is to break up the opposition attacks and get the ball to the other trio on the field of Shea, Castillo and Chavez who score the goals. Serving as the linking player of the three, Jacobson has done a wonderful job, upping his game to heights the 25 year old has never seen.
Jacobson, a player acquired off the scrap heap from Philadelphia in the pre-season, was trusted by Schellas Hyndman to start just three games into the season and has repaid the coach's trust with four assists, tied for the team lead, and the first goal of his young MLS career. The Cal-Berkeley alum produced arguably the best performance of his MLS career just this past weekend with both assists in Dallas' 2-1 win at Chivas USA.
While Jacobson has been a revelation this season, he still doesn't provide those consistent cutting passes that David Ferreira could, meaning Dallas needed someone to step up who could score a goal out of nothing. Brek Shea to center stage. At just 21 years old, Shea has set MLS on fire in recent weeks scoring goals of every type. In just 15 games this season, Shea has six goals, already passing last year's five and priming him to move into the top tier of American attacking players. Perhaps the best part of Shea's ascension is the fact that Dallas has him locked up through 2015 meaning FCD can begin to build around the College Station native for years to come.
So who deserves the most credit for Dallas staying near the top of MLS while losing their best player and offensive catalyst? All eleven players on the pitch certainly get a ton of plaudits, but the biggest cheer has to go to Schellas Hyndman. The once-maligned coach of FC Dallas has figured out the formula that Jason Kreis couldn't and has Dallas within striking distance of first place in Major League Soccer without their MVP and without possession of the ball.