FC Dallas suffered a tough 3-0 loss to Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on Sunday night in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinals match-up. Oscar Pareja’s decision to start with a defensive minded 5-3-2 system looked to be working up until the first goal arrived from Nelson Valdez which then began a blitz with Seattle registering three times in eight minutes to produce a comfortable win. In-form Nicolas Lodeiro got the other two goals for the Sounders whose remarkable recovery under interim manager Brian Schmetzer continues with the club taking one big step towards a Conference Finals appearance.
Although it’s difficult to take out positives from this game given the way things panned out, there were a couple to note. The defensive performance of the first half was decent, even if it all went in the water in the second, with Seattle only managing to get a couple of shots on goal despite dominating possession. Although the Sounders managed to get behind in a few times and create some danger that they later on profited from, they didn’t find the breakthrough in the first half and by that point, Oscar Pareja’s gamble on a new system wasn’t looking too bad just yet.
Far more negatives to pick out here, including that same gamble that Pareja took that evidently didn’t pay off at all. The decision to go with a formation and system that wasn’t once tested in league play this entire year was a bold, risky one but it was also probably an unnecessary one. By doing so, Pareja put several players into positions that they hadn’t played in much or at all this season and situations that they weren’t prepared for.
Firstly, changing the defensive structure from a four-man to a five-man back line was a major switch to make. Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman have formed one of the most formidable defensive partnerships in the league this year, but with Maynor Figueroa dropping into central defense as well instead of playing his normal left-back role, their roles changed due to the narrow compactness of the new look system which left them with less space to cover and maneuver in. The three central defenders clearly looked uncomfortable in this setting and struggled to play the ball out the back well while they also had problems with man marking roles at times when it came to dealing with Seattle’s attacking players in crossing and ground duel situations. With Pareja having not once tried out a back five in a MLS game this year, this was certainly not the time to do so and it turned out to be a miserable failure.
Atiba Harris and Ryan Hollingshead were wingbacks rather than fullbacks and, because of the lack of support on the flanks with no wingers in a 5-3-2 system, it is important to know how to temper your game by knowing when to stay back and when to go forward in order to be effective at that position. Both players clearly had problems with doing so, which Seattle exploited well by targeting the flanks, mainly the right side, and getting into one-on-one situations against the centerbacks often times.
Next, the decision to leave Mauro Rosales and Tesho Akindele out of the lineup with Mauro Diaz injured in order to slot in a third defensive midfielder in Victor Ulloa put more pressure than there already was on Kellyn Acosta to carry the FCD midfield well, mainly from an offensive standpoint. Having three defensive minded players in midfield created some role confusion between the trio and although Acosta did have a short run as the most advanced midfielder early in the year when Diaz was missing, he hasn’t featured there at all since and it showed as he was unable to impact the game on the ball and Dallas struggled to create anything through the middle for the entirety of the match.
Finally, with Tesho not being in, Michael Barrios was moved up from his regular wing position to the center of attack to partner up with Maximiliano Urruti. Barrios’ best attacking characteristics come from his abilities to create shots or crossing opportunities by receiving the ball out wide and getting into a one-on-one duel with a defender and making runs in behind defenses, but by moving him up front, it wasn’t possible to utilize those strengths in this way, especially with Dallas short of creativity in midfield and lacking a link between the midfield and attack with the look of the system Pareja put in place. Again, just like the aforementioned players above, Barrios has spent very little time playing in this role this year if any and unsurprisingly struggled all night long against a physical central defensive pairing of Zack Scott and Chad Marshall.
Without trying to make it sound like a scapegoating here, it’s not hard to see what the plan was from Pareja and his coaching staff for this game with the lineup and system they went with. They wanted to just sit deep and wait for good counter opportunities in hope of nicking an away goal and leaving with a positive result to take back home. But with most of the players being placed into unfamiliar roles and in a system that wasn’t once tested in league play this year, then perhaps this gamble wasn’t a necessary one and a better solution may have made sense in order to accommodate the players better by having them in positions that they actually have played in throughout the year.
Still, Dallas were doing a fair job of holding their own despite all that but saw their downfall cast in the space of just eight minutes during which Seattle struck three times, all three goals being very avoidable ones from an FCD perspective. With everything falling into Seattle’s hands on the first goal for it to happen, Dallas immediately opened up in search of an away goal but were sucker punched instantly through counters with Seattle displaying their ruthlessness on the break in the process.
With all that said, predictably, the offensive performance was poor and largely toothless against a well drilled Seattle defense, the midfield created nothing of note and were clearly second best to Seattle’s all night long, and the defense’s failure to adapt to the new structure was exploited well by Seattle’s front players. Seattle made the most out of Dallas’ tactical flaws and got a worthy victory by an impressive margin, one that now leaves them on the cusp of a third ever Conference Finals appearance.
The second leg takes place this Sunday in Frisco and unless FC Dallas can do the unthinkable, the 2016 season, which will go down as the best in club history regardless, will come to an end for the Hoops.