Last night’s 2-2 draw against the visiting New York Red Bulls gave us almost the exact look that many expected from this FC Dallas team. The beginning of the year gave Dallas fans a false start. 7 or so weeks ago, Dallas was sitting atop of the Western Conference in PPG and with games in hand. Since then, this team has crashed back down the standings and the games in hand are starting to dwindle as this team is now on a 7 game win-less streak.
Quite a few expected Dallas to have a very rocky season given the absence of Mauro Diaz, but then Kellyn Acosta stepped up and provided an offensive spark to spearhead this Dallas side. As Acosta cooled, Maximiliano Urruti and Michael Barrios kicked off their offense to another gear and kept Dallas climbing up the standings. But it was never sustainable, not over the course of a full season. This team was built (for better and for worse) around Mauro Diaz. Where he goes, this team goes too.
Last night, we finally saw what a fully fit, and fully healthy Mauro Diaz can provide for this club even when playing a man down.
Mauro pulling the strings is a thing of beauty
Admittedly, this is a little difficult to analyze because of the Jacori Hayes red card (who up until that point was having a fine showing). As soon as the red occurred, I did wonder if Diaz would be the first to be sacrificed as a half time sub. (Oscar Pareja, has historically subbed off Diaz when the team’s been reduced to 10 men, but opted for a different tactic that I’ll cover later.)
Here is what we did see from Mauro in the opening 37 minutes (before the red).
Diaz played relatively direct, opting to direct the attack with more incisive passing than cycling the ball side to side. The result was forcing NYRB into 12 clearances in the first 37 minutes. For context, NYRB only forced Dallas into 7 for the entire 90 minutes.
It had to be encouraging to Pareja, his players and the fans to see Dallas fight back twice from behind, despite being down a man for such a long stretch of the game. Dallas out shot the Red Bulls 2:1 for the final 53+ minutes of the game (12-6). Dallas was chasing the game and searching for an equalizer for long periods but it’s giving the FCD faithful a renewed hope that this team can fight and claw their ways to a positive result despite questionable circumstances.
Pareja got it right with JaviMo
During half time, I figured Carlos Cermeno would get the nod to anchor the midfield and for the team to try to play on the counter for 1-1 draw. Instead, Pareja brought on veteran Javier Morales to try to stabilize the midfield by playing him just a bit to the right of the center midfield and a little behind Diaz.
JaviMo was tasked with staying tethered to Victor Ulloa and making sure the midfield wouldn’t be overrun. Pareja risked defensive athleticism for veteran savvy and passing acumen, and the risk paid off.
Despite playing in an unfamiliar position, Morales actually had his best game in an FCD shirt. He stayed close to Ulloa - occupying the right spaces as a shield to the defense - this also allowed Diaz to focus on staying close to Urruti and finding the gaps to get on the ball. When needed Morales got the ball forward to push the Dallas attack. His commitment to staying back also enabled Barrios to absolve himself of any defensive responsibility and just sit on Sal Zizzo’s shoulder and wait for the outlet passes to reach him.
We’ve been critical of JaviMo’s play here as a #10 and a Diaz backup, but perhaps we did not realize that his best position is now a deep lying playmaker and he’d been utilized incorrectly all year.
The best of Mikey
In the absence of Diaz, Barrios has had to change the way he approached attacking the goal. Rather than being the beneficiary of through balls that he’s asked to bury in the back of the net, Mikey Barrios has adapted to flip his role and be the chance creator himself. With Diaz back last night, we were curious to see which Barrios we would see.
The unsuccessful passes inside the box hardly tell the full story. A majority of those passes were well intercepted and just a half chance away from being put inside the net. Barrios was menacing and dangerous around the penalty area the entire evening, and benefited from being able to focus on what he does best: running behind the defense to get on the end of through balls.
This only happened because of Diaz. When Diaz occupies the minds of defenders by putting his foot on the ball, it enables the rest of the team to focus on their specialties. Combine that with Mauro’s vision and passing ability, an already dangerous Barrios just got even more lethal for this Dallas attack.