New setup leaves FC Dallas looking for answers in midfield

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PORTLAND, Ore. — It reminded me of a conversation almost three years old. There was FC Dallas, at Jeld-Wen Field playing out a 0-0 draw with Sweden’s AIK, and David Ferreira’s positioning was taking me back to a Skype conversation I had with a colleague in the wake of the 2010 World Cup.

Reductionism, lack of perspective, formation primacy – we were going through our litany of quibbles when we came upon Uruguay. Oh, here was a great example, my friend noted. For all the love of Spain (adoration which was at its apex at the time) and the growing fallacy that formation A always bests formation B, here was La Celeste making an unexpected run to the tournament finals. And they were doing it with a “broken” formation.

Óscar Tábarez had Diego Forlán, Luis Suárez, and Edinson Cavani — as enviable a striking trio as you’d find in the world — and a bunch of players who were better suited to play more defensive roles. Attempts to leverage Nicolas Lodiero or Álvaro Fernandez as a means of connecting to the trio hadn’t worked, so as the tournament went on, Uruguay’s best setup saw Diego Pérez, Arévalo Rios and Álvaro Perreira sit deep in midfield with Forlán tasked with bridging the gap. With a huge space between forwards and midfielders, Uruguay’s midfield was broken. And successfully so.

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SUNDAY VS. AIKDallas’s setup against AIK on Sunday was only one possible XI we’ll see on March 2 when FCD opens their season against Colorado, yet it highlighted the problems Schellas Hyndman faces fitting David Ferreira into a two-striker system.

It’s rare that you see teams willing to leave such a gaping space in midfield, but there I was on Sunday, witnessing FC Dallas do the same thing. Schellas Hyndman’s team had Kenny Cooper and Blas Pérez up front, David Ferreira right behind them, and a huge gap back to their defensive midfielder. Neither Fabian Castillo nor Jackson (the wide midfielders) were coming in to help.

Dallas was broken, and Hyndman knew it.

“We haven’t spent enough (time working) in the attacking third,” the Dallas head coach said after Sunday’s game. “I thought we had, but today’s performance showed us we need to put more into our attacking third and developing that structure.”

But what is “that structure”? When you have the likes to Forlán, Suárez, and Cavani in your team, you might be able to get away with playing like that – vacating an important area of the field. Suárez is a bulldog, capable of dropping and winning balls sent from the back. Cavani’s industry and size gave Tábarez an outlet wide. Forlán, playing as a No. 10, was the tournament’s best player. If there’s a trio that could fix a broken setup, that’s it.

Dallas, however, has problems. Ferreira isn’t somebody that’s strong or willing enough to win physical battles with an opposition defensive midfielder over the course of 90 minutes. Neither Cooper nor Pérez are great ball-winners in the air, meaning Dallas can’t rely on more direct play. The duo also lack the speed, industry, and versatility to mimic Cavani or Suárez. Against AIK, Dallas’s broken formation needed fixing.

One solution would be to abandon the setup entirely, something that’s unlikely given Dallas’s talent. After years of being a 4-5-1 team, Dallas is making a shift to a two-striker setup, one that’s been facilitated by acquiring two high profile No. 9s this offseason. While previous teams would rely on left winger Brek Shea to augment the threat sacrificed by choosing five midfielders, now FC Dallas is turning to Cooper, Pérez, and Eric Hassli.

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FC DALLAS, LATE 2012The goal scoring threat of Shea and the playmaking of Ferreira allowed Dallas to go 4-5-1 in the past. Though Jackson and Ricardo Villar regularly got time, here is how the team’s choice starting XI looked at the end of last season.

“When we brought Kenny in, when we brought in Eric Hassli, we put a lot of our salary cap into those three players, with Blas,” Hyndman explained. “It’s kind of putting ourselves in position where we have to find ways of being successful with two strikers.”

The alarming part of Dallas’s Sunday sacrifices were how easily they were revealed. Take the action along their left side through fullback Jair Benítez, the most obvious of a few examples where Dallas’s problems were easily exposed.

The Colombian veteran is a proven Major League Soccer defender, one that’s been a part of an MLS Cup finalist, but on Sunday basic pressure from AIK right midfielder Daniel Gustavsson repeatedly forced him into negative balls. The connection between Benítez and Chris Seitz was Dallas’s most successful in the first half, though because Benítez is so left foot dominant, the backpasses to his keeper provided small moments of drama. As Benítez turned away from pressure, his want to play everything with his left foot exposed the ball to the middle of the field. As Gustavsson started to pick up on this, he became more daring, trying to pick the ball off Benítez’s boot before it was released to Seitz.

Why Benítez was forced into the passes was more important than how the passes were executed. Mickael Tavares, starting in defensive midfield, was often marked by right forward Viktor Lundberg and was unable to create an outlet through the middle. With Benítez in a slightly more advanced position than his central defenders, his angle to left-center half Matt Hedges allowed Lundberg to simultaneously cut off that lane. With AIK’s pressure turning Benítez away from left midfielder Fabian Castillo, one of his other potential options, Seitz was both his logical and only choice.

In a normal 4-4-2 – one that isn’t broken – Benítez would usually have one more outlet, but after years of playing as a No. 10 in front of two midfielders, David Ferreira isn’t accustomed to coming from his position to show for the ball. His best seasons in MLS, including his 2010 MVP campaign, cast him as the most advanced player in a five-man midfield, a role that allowed him to stay high and receive the ball without dropping into the heart of midfield. Though Dallas is no longer playing that system, Ferreira has yet to adjust to a more conventional midfielder’s role. On Sunday, it showed, with his positioning leaving Dallas reliant on long balls down the right and combination play down the left to get into the final third.

Those avenues would be welcome choices for Dallas’s opponents. They reduce the influence of Cooper, Pérez, and Ferreira – not what Hyndman wants.

“When we were at our best was when we were able to win the ball and go quickly in transition,” Hyndman noted, tacitly acknowledging the team’s regular buildup was lacking. He also acknowledged the struggles could breed discontent:

“We had a few players that it’s going to be very quick for them to be pointing fingers at people, saying ‘You weren’t here. Or you turned the ball over.’ I think that’s a normal thing you go through, some frustrations.”

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DALLAS 2013?FCD is set on playing two strikers, but not all 4-4-2s are created equal. On Sunday, Dallas’s shape played more 4-1-3-2 – their defensive shape often forming a line of three at the top of midfield. Moving to a 4-3-1-2 – with three deeper midfielders – may be Hyndman’s direction.

As Hyndman reiterated throughout his post-match comments, “it’s why we call it preseason,” but with two weeks until Dallas hosts Colorado to kick off the season, the team needs answers.

Assuming they intend to keep playing two forwards, the most obvious one is to change Ferreira’s role, though that would mean taking your best player and putting him in a less comfortable position. If that’s not a recipe for outright failure, it at least represents a potential step backward. Given the 33-year-old’s skills, it’s unlikely he’d be effective in a deeper role.

A better option for Dallas is to bring the wide midfielders in, changing from the approach that saw Castillo and Jackson deployed very wide against AIK. Instead of playing close to a 4-1-3-2 (a line of three in front of a defensive midfielder in the defensive phase), Dallas could employ a 4-3-1-2 that’s closer to what we’ve seen from Real Salt Lake.

It’s a formation in which Jackson would be a good fit, and with Benítez and right back Zach Loyd, Dallas has fullbacks capable of providing width. When defensive midfielder Peter Luccin’s in the team, the pieces come together, though the move would require sacrificing Castillo from Sunday’s team in favor of Andrew Jacobson.

But as Hyndman noted on Sunday, “Any system you play, anywhere you play it, you’re bound to give up something.” Sacrificing Castillo may be the lesser of a list of evils that includes dropping a striker or asking David Ferriera to be something he’s not.

And read between the lines of Hyndman’s Sunday thoughts, and you can see he may already be headed in that direction.

“I’m think maybe about 80 percent,” the Dallas boss said when asked how close Sunday’s team was to the one that would face Colorado. Explaing the setup would stay basically the same, Hyndman noted “different players” would likely get the nod at FC Dallas Stadium.

“We still got trialists that we’re looking at. That and we’ve got a couple of guys who aren’t here right now.”

The guys who were there were very much in preseason mode. And because of it, Sunday turned into a great learning experience for Hyndman. Now he knows his team needs some significant tweaks. He has two weeks to make the right ones.

Barcelona president warns PSG over FFP

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Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu is warning Paris Saint-Germain that even if they try to sign Neymar, they would condemn themselves to UEFA sanctions.

With PSG heavily linked to the Brazilian superstar, rumors suggest the French club is hoping to activate Neymar’s monstrous release clause set at $258 million.

However, that could have serious consequences, warns Bartomeu. “These clauses are impossible to activate if you want to comply with Financial Fair Play,” the Barcelona president told the Associated Press. “If someone doesn’t want to comply, then of course it can be activated.”

The Spaniard assured fans that Neymar is a critical part of Barcelona’s success.

“He has a contract for the coming four years and, of course, we count on him,” Bartomeu said. “He’s part of our team. He’s part of this trident [with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez].”

The 25-year-old signed a five-year contract extension last October that runs through the summer of 2021. Club vice-president Jordi Mestre also said he was “200 per cent” sure Neymar would stay with Barcelona.

Bruce Arena must change tactics to win Gold Cup

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If last night’s 2-0 “win” over El Salvador proved anything to USMNT fans, it’s that Bruce Arena has plenty of work to do if the United States is to seriously challenge for the 2017 Gold Cup title.

Lowly El Salvador has beaten one CONCACAF opponent in its last 10 tries. That victory came over Curaçao. Nevertheless, the United States struggled to deal with the Central American nation, as El Salvador sported multiple stretches of good pressure, and the U.S. back line was unbelievably lucky to come out with a clean sheet they did not deserve.

Given the performance, Bruce Arena has only one option going forward. With the B Team he’s put together on the current 23-man roster, the USMNT manager cannot stick to his usual 4-4-2 formation. He must adapt.

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With a significantly worse defensive line than the U.S. is used to, Michael Bradley is unable to play by himself in a central defensive midfield role as he did against El Salvador. With just Bradley and Darlington Nagbe in the middle of the pitch, the United States sported a gaping hole down the center, begging their quarterfinal opponent to counter up the gut, which they did to great effect.

Arena knew the U.S. strength was down the flanks, and that’s where he chose to attack. You can see by the halftime touch map that the United States chose to move the ball up the edge, particularly the left with Justin Morrow and Gyasi Zardes.

Arena knew his midfield was thin, and attacked accordingly. Nevertheless, defensively it failed to hold up. Without the more superior John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin behind them, a midfield pair of Bradley and Nagbe just isn’t enough to cut down the counter-attack.

So what is Bruce Arena to do? Change his tactics; it’s the only option. Instead of his favored 4-4-2, he must change to a 4-2-3-1. While that cuts down on room for more attacking players, it allows Bradley to partner with Kellyn Acosta in the midfield hole. In front of the pair can either be Clint Dempsey or Darlington Nagbe in the ACM role depending how Arena plans to attack. That leaves Jozy Altidore alone up front, and while that’s less than ideal for a striker who plays better with a partner, it’s the necessary sacrifice that must be made so the U.S. midfield isn’t carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by the better attacking teams left in the Gold Cup.

Bruce Arena’s preferred tactics may work with better players on the first-choice USMNT roster, but with a significantly downgraded selection at his disposal, especially along the defensive line, the United States coach must adjust his tactics against Costa Rica and likely Mexico to even have a chance.

Villar appears before judge after arrest in corruption probe

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MADRID (AP) The president of the Spanish Football Federation, his son, and two other officials will appear before a judge on Thursday, two days after being arrested in an anti-corruption probe.

Federation president Angel Maria Villar, his son Gorka Villar, Juan Padron, the federation vice president of economic affairs who is also president of the Tenerife federation, and Ramon Hernandez, the Tenerife secretary, were arrested by Spain’s Guardia Civil on Tuesday.

National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz will question the four, who are accused of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption, and falsifying documents as part of an inquiry into the finances of the federations.

Judge Pedraz will also decide on Thursday whether the suspects remain in custody, a spokesman for the National Court told The Associated Press. The spokesman asked to remain anonymous in line with court policy.

Angel Maria Villar has been president of the Spanish federation for three decades. He is also the senior vice president of FIFA and a vice president of UEFA.

Police said on Tuesday they suspect the elder Villar of having arranged matches for Spain that led to business deals benefiting his son, a sports lawyer who has worked for CONMEBOL under three presidents who were all implicated in corruption cases.

Angel Maria Villar has spent the last two nights in a Guardia Civil jail on the outskirts of Madrid, not far from the Spanish federation offices which were raided by police on Tuesday along with private properties and regional federation offices.

AP writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this story.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Aurier to Man United; Wilshere to West Ham

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The Independent is reporting that Manchester United is set to make a move for Serge Aurier with a deal for Monaco’s Fabinho taking too long to finalize.

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Aurier, 24, is a powerful defender who can play at right back or center back and he has excelled for Paris Saint-Germain in recent seasons despite issues off the field as he was fond guilty of assaulting a police officer in Paris and was also suspended by PSG for allegedly mocking teammate Angel di Maria and then manager Laurent Blanc in a periscope session.

The Ivory Coast international is said to be available for $31 million, with PSG and Real Madrid in the running for Fabinho as his price is now said to have rocketed to past $51.9 million.

Jose Mourinho has been speaking about the spiraling costs for “good players” and not “big players” as said he may now have to settle for three new signings than the four he targeted at the start of the summer. With Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof coming in for over $135 million combined, United were said to have been agonizingly close with a deal for winger Ivan Perisic and a move for Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic is also said to still be a possibility.

Quick, strong and an all-out defender, Aurier is a solid Mourinho player. Antonio Valencia had a fine 2016-17 season but he will soon be 32 years old, so United have to look for other options at right back with both Matteo Darmian and Timothy Fosu-Mensah not doing enough to usurp Valencia last season.

All in all, this seems like a sensible solution rather than breaking the back for Fabinho who can play at both right back and as a holding midfielder.


The Daily Star claim that Arsenal have told West Ham United they’ll have to pay $28 million for Jack Wilshere and insert a buy-back clause in any deal.

Wilshere, 25, spent last season on loan at Bournemouth and although he impressed in spells he ended the season with yet another injury after suffering a left leg fracture against Tottenham Hotspur in April.

The academy product has 12 months left on his current contract and his future at Arsenal remains uncertain with Serie A side Sampdoria also said to be interested in his services, but is now the time for Wilshere to move on permanently?

Once the greatest hope of the English national team, Wilshere’s career has been ravaged by injuries and although Arsene Wenger rates him highly (hence the buy-back clause report) the Gunners have Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Mohamed Elneny in central midfield.

With Arsenal having a Europa League campaign this season perhaps Wilshere will get plenty more games with the Gunners under his belt to try and impress, but surely he wants to be playing week in, week out in the Premier League.

His England teammate Joe Hart just signed for West Ham and with the Hammers’ rivalry with Arsenal not as intense as other London neighbors Spurs and Chelsea, this deal may work. If not permanently then on a season-long loan, but Wenger was very specific about Wilshere joining Bournemouth for the style of soccer Eddie Howe‘s men play. Under Slaven Bilic West Ham aren’t a free-flowing side but at this point Wilshere’s options in the PL seem limited.

The next 12 months are critical in shaping the rest of his career. We’ve said that many times before, but it feels like now or never for the talented central midfielder.