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Scratching the Chalkboard: Mauro Diaz is back but defense still needs work

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The defense switched off and Houston took advantage

MLS: FC Dallas at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas returned the favor and split the points with the Houston Dynamo last night. In previous seasons, this may have been a disappointing result, but with the Dynamo finding their footing in BBVA, being one of two teams to walk out of Houston with any points whatsoever is a good sign.

Maxi Urruti matched his goal total from last season by delivering his 9th league goal of the season. He’s certainly doing his best to carry the offensive load this season while Cristian Colman, Roland Lamah continue to adapt to the league and while Mauro Diaz nurses himself back to full strength from injury.

We did get a sneak peak into Diaz’s fitness levels as he made his first league start of the season, but was taken off in the second half as Dallas opted to switch tactics and preserve the point. Here’s how Diaz performed:

Mauro Diaz is Back! ... or is he?

Mauro Diaz has made two starts this year, last night against Houston and one in the previous week in the USOC game. It’s without question that this Dallas side is a completely different team when a full strength Mauro Diaz is on the pitch as he brings an element of flair and vision to the offense that only a small handful of players can replicate in this league.

My eyes were obviously fixated on Diaz and where he would operate, especially in relation to Kellyn Acosta. Remember, when Diaz was out, Acosta was given the license to push forward into those gaps that had previously been occupied by Diaz. Would the two know how to work out the spacing or would they overload one area and overcrowd the middle of pitch too much?

Diaz’ passing chart

For the most part, Diaz and Acosta got out of each other’s way. The complicated part was Houston figured out that Diaz and Acosta were going to push forward and the second the Dynamo were able to win the ball back, they knew if they played quickly enough, they could catch the Dallas defense outnumbered. (More on that later.)

What did surprise me was how vertical and direct Diaz was for this match. It played off well for the most part, like that secondary assist he picked up feeding Michael Barrios who eventually laid the ball off for Urruti to finish. Such directness isn’t entirely unusual from Diaz, but I expected him to play a little more horizontal to make the Houston defense go side to side before playing the final pass. This was especially true when Acosta was occupying the same spaces and the need to move the defense around a bit was more necessary than usual.

Here’s where Acosta fared and notice how his passing chart is almost identical to Diaz’s:

Acosta’s passing chart

There’s still some things to work about between Acosta and Diaz, mainly in the positioning and spacing but that should be sorted out very quickly in 1-2 more games. What does need to happen immediately is yanking Diaz off set piece duties and put Acosta on top of all dead ball situations.

There is one problem with this scenario in that Acosta has better defensive range to smother a counter if the set piece goes awry, and he’s better in the air as a target. What do you do with Diaz and where do you put him? At this point, he’s a bit of liability in transition and he needs to find his dead ball game quickly or find some other way to contribute there.

Defensive Transitions Were Slow

The defensive mistakes without Matt Hedges or Walker Zimmerman were understandable. But when one is back, you’d expect the back line and defensive midfielders to be more in sync with one another. 15 minutes into the match, it was evident that Houston was going to let Dallas have the ball and they were going to go on the counter. If the opposition is playing the counter, then the first thing you need to do is be prepared to switch to transition defense the second you lose the ball.

Dallas routinely failed to do that in the opening 30 minutes or so, which is why during the water break Pareja was so displeased with their lack of understanding and proper reactions to the Dynamo offense. This was heightened when Dallas gave away the cheap opening goal to Cubo Torres.

Matt Hedges was faulted for the missed challenge, and as captain, he took responsibility for it.

Because soccer is a team game, unless the player deliberately scores on his own goal, it’s extremely rare that a goal is one person’s fault. Yes, Hedges made a mistake and mistimed his challenge but he shouldn’t have been left 1v1 in the first place.

Here’s what I saw:

First, I had no idea what Carlos Gruezo was doing. He made no attempt to create a passing lane for Maynor Figueroa. As the defensive midfield who is charged with getting on the ball and moving it to your attackers, he should’ve always been moving and making himself available. Gruezo did not help Figueroa out here and he played his one option and through to Acosta.

Second, look at the top of the screen where the pass was going to. Acosta let the ball run and wanted it to get to Michael Barrios. Barrios made no challenge or attempt to come to the ball. You can see Acosta’s frustration as that failed attempt to get to the ball allowed Houston to clear.

Third, once the ball was cleared nobody reacted to the fact that Torres was going to have a 1v1 chance with Hedges. Gruezo made a slow jog and Figueroa started to run a bit, but nobody was in full on sprint mode. Generally, that’s not a problem. Hedges is so reliable that you don’t necessarily need to react with such urgency in such situations. And Gruezo and Figueroa are generally very committed to the defense and have often made those lung busting, sacrificing runs back before.

But this is Torres, who was tied for second in the league in goals heading into the game, and this is a derby match. You switch off when you play Real Salt Lake. You never switch off against any match against Houston. Never.

Thankfully, in the end, the result was fair and Dallas managed to end their three game road trip with two points total. The good thing is these small things are easily fixed and Dallas will get the chance to prove they’ve learned from their mistakes on Tuesday when they host the Colorado Rapids for the next USOC game.