Eric Hassli

Three things to take from Portland’s win over FC Dallas

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In a brilliantly exciting match that featured 37 shots, it was the most unlikely one that picked up the huge three points for Portland.

Darlington Nagbe’s turn-around shot smashed the top corner of the net, and Dallas could do nothing to bring it back level, seeing their lead in the Western Conference sit at just one point.

Despite just the one goal, the match was entertaining to say the least, with goalkeeping at a world-class level and dangerous set-pieces dotting the landscape.

So what did this delightful two hours learn us?

1) Portland is peaking at the right time

It probably should have been more than just a one-goal gap between the teams as Diego Chara was stoned twice by Raul Fernandez and stuck a one-on-one chance wide, but the Timbers absolutely deserved the three points.

The new Western Conference leaders haven’t lost since March 9. It’s a real accomplishment that their unbeaten streak, which now sits at 13 matches, is still going strong – they’ve beaten the teams they should by scorelines they should (Portland 3-0 Chivas USA), salvaged gritty draws with tough opponents on the road (A surging Chicago 2-2 Portland), and picked up clutch wins against top teams when given the chance (Portland 1-0 FC Dallas, Kansas City 2-3 Portland).

With three straight away league matches before tonight, they picked up 5 points.  The home shutout streak is up to over 480 minutes now, and even the most potent offenses can’t find an answer to Donovan Ricketts and his gang in front of goal.

Portland are in the middle of a stretch where they have to face 4 playoff-position teams in 6 matches, and the other two are in 6th place, plus Chicago.  So that’s 6 top-6 clubs in 6 matches, plus Chicago. “They” always say peak at the end of the season, but by playing their best soccer yet during this stretch, it’s playing out perfectly for the Timbers.

2) Anyone is vulnerable when a team is missing players

Dallas’s “Big 3” at the top were missing, and it showed.  With Blas Perez on international duty with Panama and Kenny Cooper few home to take care of a family emergency, Eric Hassli only lasted 8 minutes before his back injury took its toll.  That left David Arturo Ferreira and Je-Vaughn Watson to roam the attacking third, and it didn’t work out so well.

Let’s not take away from what Donovan Ricketts did between the sticks, as he was a major part of Portland’s win, stopping what chances the replacements were able to muster.  But the Dallas buildup was seriously lacking at the front end, and it showed.

3) It’s the Western Conference’s season to lose

The top 3 clubs in the Western Conference this season have picked up 20 points from 13 matches against the East.  The top 3 clubs in the Eastern Conference have just 15 points in 11 matches.  That’s not a huge difference, but if it weren’t for Montreal, they’d have just 5 points in 7 matches.

The Western Conference has beaten up on each other, but this is their season to drop the ball.

Major League Soccer team previews: FC DALLAS

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 7 in the West is FC Dallas:

Significant additions and subtractions: The team immediately put the proceeds to use from Brek Shea’s $4 million sell to Stoke City. That started with Kenny Cooper, who packed up his 18 goals from last year in arriving from New York in one of the league’s most newsy offseason exchanges. It fell within days of Dallas acquiring Eric Hassli, who was the centerpiece of Vancouver’s attack at this time last year.

Elsewhere, is Peter Luccin the holding midfielder that Julian de Guzman couldn’t quite be last year? (The Canadian international de Guzman is gone, by the way, now back in Europe in the 2.Bundesliga). We may be waiting to find out; Luccin has been out injured through most of the preseason. A late February trade with Houston brought Jamaican international Je-Vaughn Watson to help reinforce central midfield.

Daniel Hernandez, the team’s previous midfielder strong man, has retired.

Peruvian international goalkeeper Raul Fernandez has huge shoes to fill in replacing Kevin Hartman, whose high salary was deemed surplus by FCD management. It was a bold move considering how many times Hartman as turned no points into one, or one point into three over the past three seasons at FC Dallas Stadium.

CEO Doug Quinn is out; he’s part of the team’s “competition committee,” which makes player personnel decisions, but that should not affect the actual team on the field.

Strengths: A team that hasn’t had two top-level strikers in years now suddenly has three of them, with Cooper and Hassli joining Panamanian star Blas Perez.

How the team shape looks remains to be seen as manager Schellas Hyndman continues to experiment with various looks in preseason. They won’t need to make any hard decisions yet on which two strikers to deploy ( … or how to deploy all three?) as Hassli continues to nurse his way back to full health.

George John and promising sophomore Matt Hedges form a solid central defensive pairing.

Pressure points: Hartman was creeping up toward $200,000 in salary, which is heaping helping for a goalkeeper in MLS. On the other hand, Hartman was generally worth it.

Shea’s departure leaves FCD perilously thin on the flanks, with Fabian Castillo and Jackson set to start (and that’s not bad) but curiously little behind them. (Check out the depth chart and you’ll see.) Aren’t there still some nickels, dimes or dollars left over from the Shea profits?

Left back Jair Benitez isn’t the attacking force he was before, and his risky, combative defenders tends to put FCD in holes. And still no word on Ugo Ihemelu, who has been out since mid-year 2012 with concussion-related issues. Darn shame, too.

Difference maker: If playmaker David Ferreira can’t be large and in charge, this team isn’t going anywhere. And if we’re honest, he simply wasn’t the same influence upon return from injury in 2012. Perhaps asking him to be the 2010 Ferreira once again is asking too much, but that’s where it is for FC Dallas right now. They need their Colombian creator to be massive.

source: Getty Images

Potential breakout player: By mid-season 2012, Castillo was starting to figure it out. The decision making remains frequently dubious, but he’s so fast and talented that defenses are forced to pay attention. Just 20 years old, Castillo (pictured right) can deliver so much more than last year’s sum of 6 goals and 3 assists if Hyndman and Co. can get him pointed in the right direction.

Bottom line: Injuries crunched the team in 2012, but a lack of depth along the flanks threatens to be the team’s undoing this year. There’s ample offense; this team’s playoffs hopes will live and die on whether FC Dallas management has stockpiled enough defense.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

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.

Building preseason knowledge: FC Dallas vs. AIK

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PORTLAND, Ore. — “The competition is going to show us our strengths and weaknesses,” FC Dallas coach Shellas Hyndman said after the match. He was right. Against an AIK team that is still a month-and-a-half away from their season opener, Dallas looked like the side that needed more fine-tuning despite the fact the match ended 0-0.

It was the first of a three-match set in Portland, where Dallas is competing in the Timbers’ 2013 preseason tournament. The San Jose Earthquakes are also part in the four-team competition that will take place over the next week.

The Stockholm-based “visitors” nearly went behind early, allowing Dallas big man Blas Pérez an open chance from the middle of the penalty area in the 16th minute. Goalkeeper Ivan Turina came off his line to block what would prove Dallas’s best change of the match.

The next 74 minutes laid out what Dallas needs to solve before the team opens the season March 2 against Colorado. Despite a respectable scoreline, most of Sunday highlighted areas Hyndman has to address:

  • The team is clearly struggling with a new system. Having typically being a five midfielder, one forward team in recent seasons, Dallas’s glut of No.9s is inspiring a shift to a two-striker system. It’s still a work in progress.
  • Kenny Cooper and Blas Pérez got the call on Sunday. Eric Hassli didn’t dress. Cooper played a slightly more advanced role, often shading right. Perez leaned left and was more withdrawn, if only slightly. David Ferreira sat behind the duo in the middle of a 4-1-3-2 formation that at times became a diamond. For the most part, Jackson and Fabio Castillo played very wide. Trialist Michel served the first half in defensive midfield before giving way to Andrew Jacobson.
  • The major problem this setup presented was in middle. The gap between Ferreira and his defensive midfielder was often too much. “I thought we gave up a little too much in the center of midfield,” Hyndman said after the match, “but I was expecting that.” It’s preseason, it’s a work in progress, and now he knows.
  • We’ll double back on Dallas’s formation issues tomorrow.
  • Dallas’s fullbacks also struggled, but since we’re talking about Zach Loyd and Jair Benítez, you have to think the duo will come around to their normal level of performance. Loyd looked shakey covering runs behind him from AIK left midfielder Nabil Bahoui while Benítez was forced into too many negative balls from the pressure for Daniel Gustavsson.

Positives for Dallas:

  • George John and Matt Hedges were strong in defense. John showed some midseason feistiness in a first half confrontation with forward Viiktor Lundberg while Hedges’s all-around game continued to show the promise of the partnership.
  • Both Chris Seitz and Peruvian international Raul Fernandez were strong in goal. Hyndman was specifically complimentary about Fernandez, one of the team’s offseason acquisitions.
  • Jackson was active at right midfield, proving valuable both pushing onto left back Nils-Eric Johansson and coming in to help in the middle. His second half pass to Cooper’s feet at eight yards out should have been a goal (Cooper struggled to get it out of feet before the shot was blocked).

Two big MLS trades ship scoring firepower to FC Dallas

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Until this morning, you could track back through FC Dallas rosters of the last four seasons and count on one finger – yup, one bony ol’ finger – the number of genuine front-line strikers found hanging around the club in that time.

Now, FC Dallas Stadium is overflowing with them.

Almost too many, even!

The club wasted no time in turning a cool few million from last week’s Brek Shea transfer into talent flowing back into the FCD mix. Today the club announced trades that bring Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli to Texas.

(Good details on the Eric Hassli trade are here; More on Cooper and the relevant data are here.)

In Dallas, they join Blas Perez, the one, actual top-flight striker to suit-up and boot-up for FC Dallas since – well, since Cooper left FC Dallas back in 2008 to try soccer overseas.

Hassli’s move to Dallas is all about Toronto clearing cap room. (We talked about that in yesterday’s post.) Dallas handed over a conditional second round pick in 2014, a pittance for a man who, just more than a year ago, stood as the DP centerpiece to Vancouver’s attack.

Cooper’s move is more difficult to untangle. As we pointed out a few days back, the list of 18-goal scorers in MLS over the last four years starts and stops at Cooper and Chris Wondolowski. Yes, some of Cooper’s success was about playing alongside Thierry Henry (pictured above, with Cooper), as brainy as he is talented. Still, 18 goals is 18 goals – a fact that seemed curiously lost on New York.

What the Red Bulls get in return is allocation money; FC Dallas has plenty at the moment thanks to the Shea transfer.

We’ll look more later at this trade from #RBNY’s side, at what manager Mike Petke might desire to round out his lineup. Presumably, someone whom Henry enjoys playing with a little more than he seemed to with Cooper.