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.

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

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Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.