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.

Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer out until 2018

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Bayern Munich have been handed a big blow as goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer has been ruled out until early 2018 after surgery on his broken left foot.

Neuer, 31, will not return before January and the German international star will leave a huge void as Carlo Ancelotti’s side aim to push for a four-straight Bundesliga title and challenge for the UEFA Champions League.

The German national team will be hoping Neuer does not face any complications in his recovery with Joachim Loew’s men the favorites for the 2018 World Cup next summer in Russia.

In his absence former Germany U-21 goalkeeper Sven Ulreich will step up as the new No.1 at the Allianz Arena with the German goalkeeper patiently waiting for his chance in Bavaria since arriving from Stuttgart in 2015.

Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said that Neuer’s operation “went perfectly” and the German giants are looking forward to his return.

The Bundesliga powerhouse have won three of their opening four league games to start the season but there has been some criticism for Ancelotti and his players, especially following the 2-0 shock defeat at Hoffenheim.

Losing one of the best goalkeepers on the planet is sure to test Bayern’s defensive unit and they have a tough job on their hands to qualify for the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds as the top seed as they battle with Paris Saint-Germain to win Group B ahead of Anderlecht and Celtic.

Pulisic nominated for 2017 Golden Boy

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U.S. national team teenager Christian Pulisic has been nominated for the prestigious Golden Boy award.

The award, run by Italian outlet Tuttosport, goes to the top player in European soccer under the age of 21 over the past 12 months.

[ MORE: JPW speaks to USMNT’s Pulisic ]

Pulisic, who turned 19 yesterday, has been a star for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga over the past 12 months and has nine goals and 14 assists in 61 appearances for the German side. He also has seven goals in 18 appearances for the USMNT.

Marcus Rashford, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele are expected to challenge for the trophy but the Pennsylvania native being among the final nominees for the award proves how highly regarded he is on the global stage.

[ MORE: Breaking down Pulisic at 19 ]

Seven players from the Premier League have also been included in the shortlist of nominees with Rashford from Manchester United, Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City, Joe Gomez and Dominic Solanke from Liverpool, Dominic Calvert-Lewin from Everton, Reece Oxford from West Ham (on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach) and Kyle Walker-Peters from Tottenham all getting recognition.

The 25 nominees for the 2017 Golden Boy award are in full below.


Aaron Martin, Espanyol
Jean-Kevin Augustin, RB Leipzig
Rodrigo Bentacur, Juventus
Steven Bergwijn, PSV Eindhoven
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton
Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina
Ousmane Dembele, Barcelona
Amadou Diawara, Napoli
Kasper Dolberg, Ajax
Gianluigi Donnarumma, Milan
Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City
Joe Gomez, Liverpool
Benjamin Henrichs, Bayer Leverkusen
Borja Mayoral, Real Madrid
Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain
Emre Mor, Celta Vigo
Reece Oxford, Borussia Monchengladbach
Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund
Marcus Rashford, Manchester United
Allan Saint-Maximim, Nice
Dominic Solanke, Liverpool
Theo Hernandez, Real Madrid
Youri Tielemans, Monaco
Enes Unal, Villarreal
Kyle Walker-Peters, Tottenham

Jay Heaps out as New England Revolution boss

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Jay Heaps’ six-year reign at the New England Revolution has come to an end.

On Tuesday morning New England released a statement saying they had “parted ways” with former defender Heaps who took charge in November 2011.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Heaps led the Revs to the 2014 MLS Cup final where they lost in overtime to the LA Galaxy, while he made three-straight trips to the MLS Cup Playoffs to kick off his managerial career and he also led the Revs to the 2016 U.S. Open Cup final where they lost to FC Dallas.

Nine defeats in their last 14 MLS games, including a 7-0 hammering at Atlanta United last week, sealed Heaps’ fate and New England Revolution GM Michael Burns had the following to say about Heaps’ departure.

“Jay has done a great deal for the club over the years and had considerable achievements. I have great respect for him and wish him well in the next steps of his career, “Burns said. “This decision has not been taken lightly, however, we need to do better than the results have shown from the last couple of seasons and this season left us convinced we need to go in a different direction.”

Assistant coach Tom Soehn has been placed in interim charge of the Revs for the remainder of the 2017 season and the Kraft family, who own the MLS franchise, explained why they fired Heaps.

“As a club, we made the decision to remove Jay Heaps as the head coach of our team. We would like to thank Jay for his tremendous contributions to the club over his 15 years as a player and coach. Jay led us to our fifth MLS Cup appearance and our third US Open Cup Final. He made us all proud and as a former player of ours we are very happy to have helped him launch his coaching career and wish him nothing but the best of success in the future.

“Our goal is to field a team each and every season that is competing for championships and over the past couple of seasons we have fallen short of that goal. We will immediately begin a search for a new head coach and are committed to seeing the New England Revolution once again return to championship contention. – Robert and Jonathan Kraft”

With a 75-81-43 record in the regular season and a 4-3-1 record in the postseason as a coach, Heaps is also the longest-serving head coach in Revs history after spending nine seasons as a player for New England. He will remain a legend of the club.

Yet, after early promise in his coaching career things faded badly in New England for Heaps with the Revs failing to make the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. The former U.S. national team defender was one of a wave of MLS head coaches with vast playing experience in the league after the likes of Ben Olsen, Mike Petke, Jesse Marsch and Greg Vanney were also been handed head coaching gigs.

Heaps has brought through many promising young players such as Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell and Kelyn Rowe but with the likes of Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez unable to kick on in attack the Revs have struggled to compete in the stacked Eastern Conference.

With a new soccer-specific stadium deal for the Revs no closer to fruition than it was when Heaps took charge in 2011 (the $250 million deal for a stadium in Boston’s Bayside Exposition Center collapsed earlier this year) many will question a lack of investment in the team over the years from the Kraft family as the ultimatum reason for recent struggles on the pitch.

That said, the New England job is still a very attractive one and there will no doubt be a range of top-class applicants to oversee the massive rebuild needed, although no overwhelming favorite for the role has emerged.

Man United urged to ban “racist” Romelu Lukaku chant

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Anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out have urged Manchester United to stop their supporters from singing an allegedly racist song about star striker Romelu Lukaku.

The chant, sung to the tune of Made of Stone by the Stone Roses, includes references to a racial stereotype regarding Lukaku’s penis.

Via The Times, Kick It Out released a statement about the song which was heard in both United’s 3-0 UEFA Champions League win against FC Basel last week and also the 4-0 home victory against Everton on Sunday.

“Kick It Out is aware of the footage of the alleged racist chanting by supporters of Manchester United that emerged on Wednesday evening [13 September]. The lyrics used in the chant are offensive and discriminatory. Racist stereotypes are never acceptable in football or wider society, irrespective of showing support for a player.

“We have contacted Manchester United and will be working closely with them and the FA to ensure that the issue is addressed swiftly. The perpetrators can expect to face punishment.”

The club have since released a statement on the matter saying no complaints about the song have so far been filed.

“Manchester United are speaking to the relevant authorities about the song and will act accordingly depending on the advice they’re given. United have a zero tolerance stance towards any forms of racism. Greater Manchester Police have had no complaints about the song at all.”