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Scratching the Chalkboard: Who’s to blame?

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Is it the players? Pareja’s fault?

MLS: FC Dallas at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re at a loss of words for what’s happening, you are not alone. I’ve loosely followed this league since 1996 and I cannot recall a team with this much talent, this much promise completely collapse in this fashion. Yes, we’ve seen teams swing from season to season (let me present Exhibit A: the Colorado Rapids of 2016 and 2017). But never, have I seen a team go from the best in the league to the worse in the same season without some kind of major injury or absence from a player.

It’s confounding.

Is it the players?

To some degree, yes. Walker Zimmerman has not been the same since his knee injury and it shouldn’t be all that surprising too. I’ve suffered a similar injury (though I’m not a professional athlete so my recovery time should be different) but it took me 6 months before I remotely felt comfortable doing lateral movements on my leg. I’m three years removed from hyper-extending my knee from a collision and I still feel tweaks in my knee when I cut and make lateral movements. His recovery is remarkable but it wouldn’t at all surprise me if he’s actually still injured and playing through it.

Kellyn Acosta has gone from promising USMNT regular to anonymous midfielder for a bottom table (can’t believe I’m writing that) team.

I teased this on Twitter last night about this being featured here:

It was mostly tongue in cheek, but there was some truth to it as Atiba Harris actually contributed exactly 0 defensive actions in the first half. Since I’ve been covering FC Dallas for Big D Soccer in 2014, I have never seen any defensive player log zero defensive actions in an entire half. Never.

This is not to say Harris wasn’t contributing or actively engaged. (Remember that more defensive actions doesn’t mean better defending.) There are definitely teams and sequences when they overload one side over the other, but not for an entire 45 minutes.

Minnesota United’s passing chart in the opening 45 minutes

This doesn’t all fall on Harris, but this was Minnesota’s passing chart down his side of the field in the first 45 minutes. 34/37 passing, 2 assists and the missed passes were passes made towards the penalty area. Again, that’s not all on Harris, but it’s not a good look when put in the context of a defense that can’t stop teams from scoring.

Is it Pareja?

I’ve been very slow to criticize Oscar Pareja in the last four seasons of covering this team. I think if I counted the number of times I’ve put the blame squarely on him, I still wouldn’t need two hands.

And I’m still slow to criticize Pareja for this recent collapse.

Three straight years of playoff appearances, back-to-back 60 point seasons, 1 Supporters’ Shield and 1 Open Cup gives you a lot of latitude. Especially when there have been games where I’ve scratched my head at his lineup choices or tactical choices (like that match against Columbus Crew on 9/8/2015 where he started five homegrowns and won 3-0) and he’s come out right more times than wrong.

Obviously, not every selection or tactical move has been correct but there was usually a logic and reasoning behind it. This team was floundering under the 4-2-3-1 with Mauro Diaz out there, so a switch to a 4-4-2 was reasonable. It failed, miserably but at least it made sense to rest Diaz and give Maximiliano Urruti some help up front. He benched Roland Lamah after his disgraceful display when subbed off and put on Tesho Akindele instead.

Again, it did not work, but you can see what he’s trying to do.

But why not play the kids?

FC Dallas has been revered for #PlayYourKids and has seen incredible success from it. But you have to realize that success came from years of preparation for that moment to let the kids loose.

Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds are insanely young. Their average combined age is 17 and none of them had trained full-time with the first team up until this year.

There’s a time and place to test your youngsters and give them a shot of proving they belong. To throw teenagers into the mix and ask them to save a sinking season isn’t the time to do it. At least, not when you’re thinking beyond this season.

I do wish Reggie Cannon has gotten more looks. Of the four, I think he’s most ready and should be starting over Hernan Grana. But I also understand that’s a very tall ask for a first year pro.

So now what?

With five games left, I think Oscar Pareja needs to grab one particular player and let him know it’s his team and it’s up to him to save the season. What player embodies the spirit of Oscar Pareja, the “FC Dallas Way” more than anyone?

For me, that’s Victor Ulloa.

Ulloa’s set piece delivery against Minnesota. 6/7 on corners. 3 key passes.

Remember, Ulloa was without a contract entering the 2014 season but was thrown a lifeline for his soccer career when he was invited back by Pareja to fight for a spot. Not only did he earn his contract, but he became a starter and the first homegrown to surpass 2,000 minutes played in a season. And make no mistake that it didn’t go unnoticed by the staff here that Ulloa was handed Oscar’s old number (8).

Ulloa is also a captain for this team, he gets the armband when Diaz and Matt Hedges are unavailable. But not only that, he also serves as the team’s translator as he is fluent in both English and Spanish. In other words, Ulloa is in an unique situation to unify the entire roster.

“Busca La Forma” - the famous words that has become this team’s ethos. “Find a way.” Dallas is the middle of the worst season collapse in MLS history. It will need a large collective fight from the players, coaches, staff, fans to pull themselves out of this.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be this way, but I sense that if a rally were to happen, it needs a face to lead the charge. That face should be from a Dallas native. That face should be Victor Ulloa.