Amazing what a few months can do to a team. First two months of the season and FC Dallas looked like serious MLS Cup contenders, with Mauro Diaz making a strong case for league MVP with him pulling the strings of the Dallas attack. Then he damaged his knee and after several weeks of tinkering, Oscar Pareja had to scrap the possession based style of attack that was built around Diaz into a more counter attacking team that has pushed Dallas into the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The issue now is that Diaz is healthy again for the third time this season, but what does Pareja do with him and how does Diaz fit into the team's plans once the playoff start?
After injuring his hamstring against the LA Galaxy in September, there were some calls for Pareja to just shut Diaz down for the rest of the season. There is sound logic here, Diaz is young yet has been riddled with injuries in the 14 months he's been with the Frisco club. The talent is there but maybe he just needs more time to recover and not risk further injury. Besides, the team had recovered well in his absence.
I personally don't think that shutting Diaz down for the rest of the season is going to happen. He's just too talented to not play when healthy. But just how much of the field should he see is the question.
Off the Bench: Searching for a Goal
This one is pretty obvious given Diaz's talents and penchant for delivering that perfectly weighted through ball. The debate right now though is can Mauro still play at that early season MVP like level. Mauro's brief cameos have shown us glimpses that he can still play at that level, but they were too far and few between. There are some positives though as you can see below:
This is Diaz's passing chart against Vancouver on 9/13 in 35 minutes of work. If nothing else, I'm most interested in seeing where Diaz is getting on the ball, which is generally high and near the goal. But not all is rosy especially when you take a look at this next chart of Diaz against LA:
Granted Diaz played fewer minutes against LA (27 v 35), but its concerning to see how few times Diaz got on the ball. Which leads me to my own suggestion on how Pareja can use Diaz:
Off the Bench: Protecting a Lead
There isn't a large enough sample size given Diaz' lack of minutes, so this is all just a working theory but I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a look. So rather than bringing on another CDM like Peter Luccin to see out a game, why not bring in Diaz? The wrinkle here is that Diaz is an offensive player. Those last two matches against LA and Vancouver? Diaz logged not a single defensive action (no tackles, no interceptions, no clearances, nothing). And this has worked both ways in favor and against Dallas, but it was interesting for me to look at it.
Here's where it can be successful:
Dallas in red, Vancouver in blue.
So Diaz came on at the 55th minute mark against Vancouver. Prior to that, in the second half, the Whitecaps were enjoying 71.15% of possession. Once Diaz came on that shifted drastically towards Dallas' favor to the tune of 70.7% for 20 minutes. Once Dallas took the lead in that game courtesy of a wonder goal from Blas Perez in the 78th minute, possession swung more in favor of Vancouver as they were chasing but overall possession was still 57% in favor of Dallas for the 35 minutes Diaz was on the field.
The only reason why I'm suggesting this is that the opponent quite simply cannot score a goal if they don't have possession of the ball. If the opponent is down a goal in the second half, they will most likely start pressing higher and with more intensity. At this moment only Victor Ulloa and Mauro Diaz are capable of handling the press and finding ways to circulate the ball into space and keeping it away from the opposition.
Of course, while this in theory worked wonderfully against one team, it was pretty inefficient against another. Here's what happened against LA:
As you can see, he made no impact whatsoever. In fact the game state was exactly in his favor. Dallas was up 1-0 when Mauro entered the match in the 56th minute. Dallas ended up losing the possession battle, and gave up goals in the 62nd and 84th minute and dropping all three points.
So for better or for worse, Diaz can influence and completely change the flow of a game. We'll just have to wait and see how Oscar will utilize the talented midfielder for the playoffs.