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How Kellyn Acosta continues to evolve his game

Plus more notes from FCD’s win over LA.

MLS: FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Critics and pundits alike have noted the Kellyn Acosta is poised for a breakout season. At this point in the young season I’m having trouble arguing or even finding an argument against their prediction. He appears ready to claim the title and take over for Jermaine Jones as the national team’s box-to-box midfielder with his tireless work both offensively and defensively. This work rate was evidenced throughout the game, but we’ll note a few highlights here.

a) Minute 33 – Roland Lamah gets the ball played out wide and he picks his head up to deliver a cross to the back post. Acosta is outside the 18 when Lamah decides to cross the ball, but he sprints himself into position and throws his body toward the cross, causing a last ditch defensive clearance. This lead to a rather feeble effort from Michael Barrios, but displayed a willingness to get forward from his midfield role. Who did Acosta blaze past on his path toward the net? None other than the aforementioned Jones, standing and watching while the young gun nearly scored the opener.

B) Minute 69 – Lamah uses his size and acumen to hold the ball up, turns inside and finds a running Acosta who again surged forward from his midfield role. Two quick lateral dribbles and a quick shot later FC Dallas is back in the lead. The shot was wonderfully placed in the bottom corner and Brian Rowe seemed to be completely unprepared for the shot. Kellyn’s spark on the offensive end surely will help ease the blow of not having Mauro Diaz for several more months.

Here we can see the variety of positions that Kellyn takes up when he has the ball – each dot represents a different touch for him during the game. While not necessarily the best representation of his overall impact on the game, it does show his willingness to get all over the pitch (including getting into the attacking areas in an attempt to score).

More thoughts from the win

Starting the season off with a road victory always feels good. When that road victory is against the LA Galaxy it tends to taste extra sweet. The intent to attack was on display from the outset of the game, and though possession was left to the Galaxy central defenders, when LA approached midfield FC Dallas swarmed the ball and was relentless in closing down the Galaxy midfielders.

Cristian Colman announced his presence in his first MLS game by getting in behind the Galaxy back line time and again, showing his pace and using his size to be able to hold off pressure, allowing FCD to get numbers forward in support. A quick ball in behind sprung Colman through in just the third minute, only for a long (and poor) first touch to allow the Galaxy keeper to clear.

Timely pressing resulted in the opening goal of the season as the forwards and Lamah forced the ball wide, resulting in an errant forward pass. The ball was easily intercepted and played forward immediately. Latching onto the ball in space after the turnover, Maximiliano Urruti drove at the heart of the Galaxy’s defense, peeked his head up to spot the run of Colman – freezing Jelle Van Damme in the process – just long enough to get space for a shot across his body.

Let there be no mistake, I personally think the shot was the lesser of his two choices, as he should have played Colman in. Expected Goals (xG) models will tell you that wider shots, especially moving wide rather than toward the goal, are less likely to result in goals than direct runs onto a through-ball inside the 18 (Colman’s run).

The result was fantastic, and quite a finish to the bottom corner, but let us not forget that it could easily have been another wasted opportunity. Urruti poses a big enough goal threat to have drawn attention, and Colman’s pace and direct run put the defensive players in a lose-lose situation so we can certainly draw positives from the entire play now knowing the result. We’ll continue to evaluate the opportunities and xG as the season goes along, so in this case we will cut Urruti a little slack because he did put the ball in the net.

The equalizer seemed to have come against the run of play – that much is true. Largely I think that it came from Dallas’ decision to play incredibly narrow defensively. With several LA players drifting inside, it made logical sense to bring the midfielders in tight, and have the fullbacks tuck in as well. The downside to this is what happened on the play that lead to the equalizer. David Romney overlapped on the Galaxy left side and a high ball was played in front of him. Without Hernan Grana playing so narrow defensively (see diagram below) , he likely would have been in a much better position to play the long ball, instead he was beaten to it and had to turn and try to recover – leading to the lunging tackle.

Now, in saying that, it did not appear to be a foul. There was little to no contact on the play and Romney actually appeared to be headed to ground before Grana even attempted to play the ball. Initially I thought that the referee was obstructed or had an odd angle, but his angle seemed to be perfect. Truth be told desperation tackles are indeed desperate and had Grana not been sprinting wide, beaten, then turning back inside to make a desperation tackle then there would not have been the opportunity at all. Grana was doing what was asked of him, but this was one situation where it appeared that the Galaxy attempted to directly exploit the defensive tactics of Dallas.

Grana’s afternoon. Green -> successful tackles
Red -> missed tackles
Purple -> clearances
Yellow -> defensive recoveries

Momentum swung the way of the Galaxy for the next ten or so minutes and they looked much more energized and dangerous. Jones hit the post on a headed corner as he out-jumped Atiba Harris and nearly equalized for LA again. Less than five minutes later the man possessed took over and displayed a moment of brilliance again. He smartly finished a shot into the bottom corner after fantastic holdup play by Lamah. The entire play came off of a seemingly innocuous throw-in in the attacking third of the field. Acosta’s evolution as a true attacking threat has only added to the FCD arsenal and surely the rest of the Western Conference has taken note.

The 71st minute substitute brought on Emmanuel Boateng for Garcia, shifting Sebastian Lleget to a makeshift right back and putting Boateng as the left-winger. His pace caused several problems for Harris whose lack of top end speed was exposed when Boateng got space several times to send in a cross.

Near the 80th minute Urruti had an opportunity to put the game away but was caught from behind in an excellent recovery play by Van Damme. A poor first tough was the main culprit, but it is hard to be too critical of Maxi with his tireless workrate and several opportunities he created. This was his last real action of the game as Akindele was brought in to replace him.

Now comes the less fantastic side of the game. Much like the midweek game in Panama, when the Galaxy decided to start throwing long ball after long ball into and near the box, it Dallas struggled to deal with the pressure. Service turned into chances and while our boys were able to escape LA with three points, this started some alarm bells ringing. Knowing this, and having seen it myself, I am sure that Oscar Pareja and his staff have noted it and surely this will be a priority in training moving forward so that they can better deal with these types of situations. Dallas will likely have the lead in many, many games so this could be something that we see quite a lot this season.

Below you can see the aerial duels won by FCD (blue) and LA Galaxy (orange) and how much more compact those challenges were in the last 10 minutes plus stoppage. Fifteen of the game’s 42 aerial duels came from the 81st minute onward, indicating a shift in strategy by the Galaxy, dumping the ball forward time and again.

Anytime you are able to go into LA and come out of the StubHub Center with a victory you are in a good spot. Imperfect wins can sometimes hide weaknesses, but I am not expecting Dallas to slow down anytime soon, I only expect them to continue to improve. Opening the season with a win helps get things rolling, and with the CCL semifinals approaching anytime Dallas can get three points it is a positive.