Last night, “El Expresso Azul” (The Blue Express) rolled into Frisco, high off their CCL Group Stage winning performance. Once in Frisco, it didn’t take long for the wheels to come off “The Blue Express”.
FC Dallas had a lot to do with all those wheels lying about. Arabe Unido looked like a team in preseason form, and FC Dallas looked like the team that was in the middle of it’s regular season.
It was a record breaking night for FC Dallas, as Oscar Pareja’s side, became the MLS team with the greatest margin of victory in the CCL knockout phase, following their resounding 4-0 victory.
There were so many questions surrounding FC Dallas going into their 1st competitive match of 2017. There were also many fears, and concerns, that the fanbase was eager and nervous to have allayed.
There were many things that we can take away from last night’s match, so let’s take a look at a few.
Preseason in Argentina: A Flash of Genius
The most striking takeaway from last night match, was just how in form the whole team appeared to be from beginning to end. The backline pairing of Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman, were an impregnable 2 man wall. The midfield pairing of Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo, were somehow able to be everywhere on the field, that you could have sworn they were teleporting there. The fullbacks overlapping on the attack and sending in dangerous cross after dangerous cross, was a thing of beauty. Michael Barrios and Roland Lamah switching sides so many times, that watching them made you (and the defenders) dizzy. The attacking duo of Maxi Urruti and Cristian Colman, terrorizing the backline, and giving the defenders a two pronged nightmare. FC Dallas was a well oiled machine on Thursday night. But how did FC Dallas get to that point?
It all started a couple of months ago, when FC Dallas announced it would be spending it’s preseason in Argentina. The plan was to play eight games, in eight day, in an effort to get the entire team on the same page and battle hardened. While many dismissed the trip, as nothing more than a bunch of games against reserve sides, Fernando Clavijo and Pareja simply gave everyone a knowing smile, and assured everyone that the competition would be stronger than that.
FC Dallas was gambling (or were they?) that the political soccer environment in Argentina (start of the second half of the season was delayed), would result in their Argentine opponents playing their senior team players. That gamble, payed off in spades. The Argentine teams, eager to keep their starters sharp during the league impasse, often agreed to play 2 shortened matches against FCD, one with starters and the other with reserves. This permitted Pareja to play his entire roster, and forced his players to adjust to the game speed of teams playing in mid-season form. By the time the trip was over, Papi had his team purring like a kitten that was about to play with it’s food.
This offseason, FC Dallas reached into it’s pocket book and brought in players that were being touted as upgrades at their respective positions. Just because you spend a lot of money on a player, it doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you payed for. At least not early in the season anyway.
Javi Mo was brought in, to take the reins while Mauro Diaz was on the mend (at least we all thought). Lamah was being touted as a like for like replacement for Fabian Castillo. Hernan Grana would be a true right back, and an upgrade over returning starter, Attiba Harris. Colman, was the biggest signing of all, being touted as that true #9 that we had been promised for years.
All of the Reinforcement lived up to their billing from the get go. Colman opened up his account, scoring the first FCD goal of the season in the 30th minute. He remained a menacing presence through out, leading an attack that got off 11 shots on goal. Colman displayed hold up play that fans have only dreamed off, and after scoring, created a further three chances on goal that we hope he’ll convert in the future.
Grana was impressive in a different way, as he looked like he’d been in Frisco for years. Grana dazzled with his impeccable sliding tackles, and timely clearances, combining with the rest of the backline, to snuff out any attack before it got started, holding Arabe Unido to only two attempts on goal. When Grana wasn’t busy derailing the Blue Express attack, he was putting on a clinic on attacking as a Right Back. His overlaps and crosses, could be seen coming a mile away, and the defenders were helpless to stop them.
Lamah was seen by many as the least impressive of the three new starters. Take a closer look, and his debut was just as impressive as his fellow new starters. Shaky on the ball at times, Lamah was a consummate professional. Lamah was a steadying force, and he appeared to always be in the right position at the right time. His dangerous runs, and surprising hold up play, created many set piece situations. He was constantly switching sides with Barrios, helping to further confuse the under siege Arabe Unido defenders, leading to several shots on goal, and also assisting Acosta on his first goal.
Javier Morales was seen by many fans, as a like for like replacement of the injured Diaz. What we saw instead, was a savvy creator, who came in as the first player of the bench, and only took about one minute to create three dangerous passes. Morales entered the game in the 70th minute, and quickly took control of the attack, giving FC Dallas another siege weapon to batter their already crumbling defensive walls. This is likely the way Javi Mo will be used for most of the season, and if his performance is any indication, FC Dallas will be even more dangerous in the second halves of games this season.
The stars were shining bright, deep in the heart of Texas! Those stars had names, such as Acosta, Gruezo, and Barrios. All returning starters who just looked like they had raised their game to another level.
Acosta was the Man of the Match, as he consistently displayed the talent, that he had only really teased in seasons past. A “Box to Box” midfielder that many expected would be tasked with elevating his attacking play, did just that. Acosta delivered two of the most calm and composed, well placed, outside the box goals, that you’ll ever see from an American player. Only 21 years old, Acosta has now gone from teasing us with becoming an offensive threat, to teasing us with becoming a super star!
Gruezo, cough cough, also only 21 years old, was a force of nature on the field. The Arabe Unido attackers just could not get a pass past Gruezo, as his constant interceptions, and dislodging the ball carriers, clearly frustrated player after player foolish enough to try. Gruezo was so effective, that at times, FC Dallas appeared to be playing a two-man backline (Hedges/Zim) with only one defensive midfielder (Gruezo) in front of them. Gruezo was the lynchpin of the counter attack, as his many interceptions, initiated wave after wave of counter attacks. Gruezo’s long header off an interception, was driven perfectly ahead of the on rushing Colman, resulting in both the first goal of the night and FC Dallas never looking back.
Barrios appeared to have suffered the most from Castillo’s abrupt exit from the club. Defenses were free to key on the speedster, as FC Dallas struggled to find Barrios a complimentary player on the opposite sideline. No player stands more to gain from all the added weapons, than the diminutive Colombian. With defenders unable to key on Barrios, he was free to roam the attacking third, and make dangerous runs from everywhere and anywhere. Barrios has always had and endless gas tank, but now that he can pick and chose his chances, Barrios will be able to remain dangerous from whistle to whistle. His constant harassment of the defenders, finally payed off in the 90th minute, as he delivered the killing stroke, that very well may have felled Arabe Unido, and provided passage to the Semifinals of the CCL.