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.

MLS roundup: FCD, POR thrill in 2-2 draw; Sounders’ epic comeback

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With eight MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 26 more to go…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

FC Dallas 2-2 Portland Timbers

For the third straight week, we were a matchup featuring two of the top three teams in the Western Conference. After Sporting Kansas City beat Portland two weeks ago, and Dallas topped Sporting KC last week, it was FCD’s turn to host Portland on Saturday. Thankfully, the third game of the early-season round robin did not disappointed, and delivered a higher level of entertaining, attacking soccer (each of the first two ended 1-0).

Fanendo Adi opened the scoring to conclude a cagey opening 30 minutes, and out the window went all semblance of structure and discipline from either side. FCD needed a full 30 minutes before they’d draw level, courtesy of Maximiliano Urruti, a goal that set up a fantastic, frantic final half-hour.

Sebastian Blacno’s first MLS goal put Portland ahead for the second time in the game, in the 71st minute, but the advantage was short-lived, as Tesho Akindele’s 80th-minute header brought FCD back to level terms once again.


Seattle Sounders 3-3 New England Revolution

Game. Of. The. Day.

Seattle found themselves 3-0 down to New England, at home, after 54 minutes. In 13 minutes’ time, from minute 75 to 88, the comeback was on. There’s not much to be said of this one. Just sit back, and enjoy.


Orlando City SC 2-0 Colorado Rapids

Five home games, five wins for Orlando City. The best home-field advantage in all of MLS might just reside in central Florida, and the summer humidity is yet to reach full effect.

Saturday’s victory over a truly awful Rapids side was more labored than you might have expected — all of 70 minutes passed before Carlos Rivas scored the breakthrough — but the result was never in doubt. Colorado managed all of three shots (one on target) over the course of 90 minutes, and Kaka marked his return to action (hamstring injury) with a goal in the 91st minute. All is very, very well in the City Beautiful.


New York Red Bulls 2-1 Chicago Fire

Dax McCarty’s return to Red Bull Arena, following the trade that sent him to Chicago during the offseason, was more than a little bittersweet for the box-to-box bulldog when spent five and a half seasons with New York.

After falling behind to Bradley Wright-Phillips’ opener in the 37th minute, McCarty assisted on Nemanja Nikolic’s 59th-minute equalizer — the spin and lay-off were perfectly executed. The evening ended in disappointment, though, as Kemar Lawrence broke the deadlock in the 71st minute and secured all three points. That’s back-to-back losses for Chicago, who were unbeaten in their first three games since Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s arrival. On the other end, three straight wins for New York, and they’re within two points of first-place Orlando in the Eastern Conference.


Columbus Crew SC 2-3 New York City FC

When two teams with zero desire to play the game at a non-frenetic pace, and no clue how to slow things down and control the game, get together, fireworks are to be expected.

Columbus and New York City meet the above criteria, and were happy to prove as much on Saturday. Jack Harrison put the visitors ahead with the deftest chip in the 8th minute, but Federico Higuain’s equalizer 21 minutes later was just as impressive.

Ola Kamara put Columbus 2-1 ahead in the 49th minute, and all Gregg Berhalter’s side seemed to be in total control. 15 minutes, later Angel Herrera’s header made it 2-2, and Jack Harrison completed the comeback in the 76th minute. Few victories in MLS this season will deserve greater praise than this one, achieved without the services of David Villa (illness).


Sporting Kansas City 3-0 Real Salt Lake

When Sporting KC get themselves a lead, it’s game over. In the four games in which they’ve scored this season, they’ve won 12 out of 12 points possible. On the season, they’ve conceded three goals in eight games, and haven’t conceded multiple goals in a game yet this season.

Of course, scoring has been the majority of the problem, as Peter Vermes’ side has already been blanked four times themselves. It wasn’t a problem on Saturday, though, as Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer and Gerso Fernandes were each stellar from beginning to end, and each bagged a goal in Sporting’s 3-0 win over RSL. An inability close out games has haunted this team in the past, but they’re a perfect 4-for-4 thus far in 2017.


Montreal Impact 1-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Someone’s giving Colorado a run for their money as the worst team in MLS. With just a single win to their name this season, Montreal have to make the most out of 1) home games; 2) games in which they lead, if they’re to mount any kind of playoff challenge in 2017.

They did neither against Vancouver, throwing away an early 1-0 lead — Marco Donadel opened the scoring in the 9th minute — by conceding goals either side of halftime, to Andrew Jacobson and Cristian Techera. In truth, Vancouver were the better side over 90 minutes and fully deserved the three points, and it’s a crushing result for a Montreal side with just one victory (and zero clean sheets) on the season.


Minnesota United 0-1 San Jose Earthquakes

Elsewhere in MLS

LA Galaxy 0-0 Philadelphia Union

Ligue 1: Level on games played, Monaco go 3 points ahead of PSG

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PARIS (AP) Monaco warmed up for its Champions League semifinal against Juventus with a 3-1 win over Toulouse to move three points clear of Paris Saint-Germain at the top of the French league on Saturday.

Teenage striker Kylian Mbappe, the new wonder of French football, scored his 14th league goal this season.

Kamil Glik and Thomas Lemar also got on the scoresheet for the hosts.

Mbappe has been unstoppable in recent months, scoring 22 goals in his last 20 starts in all competitions.

Having turned 18 just four months ago, Mbappe has scored 24 goals in 38 games in his first full professional season to become one of the most sought-after players across Europe.

Both Monaco and PSG, which travels to third-placed Nice on Sunday, have four league matches left to play.

After rotating his team in a 5-0 loss to PSG in the French Cup to save his best players for Wednesday’s Champions League clash, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim switched back to his usual starting lineup. His players made a slow start but ended up scoring three goals – their average this season.

Toulouse, which upset Monaco 3-1 in the corresponding fixture last October, had the first chance in the 10th minute when the unmarked Andy Delort sent a header inches wide at the far post from a free kick.

Monaco gradually worked its way into the game and took a firm grip near the half-hour. Following a one-two with Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva dribbled past a defender and forced `keeper Alban Lafont to make a good save to his left.

The youngest player in French league history to reach 10 goals in a season, Mbappe was then perfectly set up by Nabil Dirar’s long ball down the left flank but saw his effort deflected by a last-minute tackle from Toulouse skipper Issa Diop.

Struggling to break a well-organized defense, Monaco kept peppering the box with teasing crosses but lacked a cutting edge.

Monaco found itself trailing against the run of the play just after the interval following a blunder from Jemerson. The Brazilian defender fluffed the ball in front of goal, allowing Ola Toivonen to beat Danijel Subasic with a clean finish.

The goal spurred Monaco on even more and Glik put the teams level with a beautiful header into the top right corner from Joao Moutinho’s cross.

Mbappe made it 2-1 in the 64th minute after Bernardo Silva set him up on the right side of the area, rifling a shot into the net from a tight angle.

Lemar completed the win in the 75th minute from Dirar’s clinical cross.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”