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.

USMNT reportedly opens contract talks with Gregg Berhalter; Good or bad idea?

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Gregg Berhalter may be sticking around the United States men’s national team program, giving the USMNT coaching continuity as it moves from 2022 World Cup Round of 16 member to 2026 World Cup co-host.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle says that Berhalter is beginning contract discussions with the United States Soccer Federation but also interested in taking a job in Europe with his profile having risen alongside the USMNT at the World Cup.

Berhalter’s current contract ends at the end of the calendar year, and the Yanks have scheduled a domestic camp in January and friendlies against Serbia and Colombia.

[ MORE: USMNT transfer rumors for Musah, Dest ]

Berhalter has done some good things for the program, most notably winning the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup with two different groups. He also straightened out the defending, for the most part, and got out of the World Cup group.

Berhalter successfully recruited Sergino Dest and Yunus Musah, two of the program’s stars at the World Cup. He also convinced Malik Tillman, Gaga Slonina, and Jesus Ferreira that the U.S. was the right place for their national team futures.

He also, subjectively, was slow if not downright stubborn in acquiesing to certain points-of-view that made the team better. From Tyler Adams as a right back at the outset of his tenure to saying Tim Ream didn’t fit how he wanted to play about a month before the World Cup… then playing him every minute of the tournament.

But for the most part when lessons were learned, they stayed learned.

Should Gregg Berhalter continue as USMNT boss?

Let’s start here, because it’s necessary: It’s clear that Berhalter cared about his players and the project, whether you like the way he operated or not. This wasn’t a half-assed operation, but one with passion.

So does he still have that passion? Only he can answer that, and if he’d like to get more matchdays in his life then maybe he does want to go back to the club game.

And frankly, that’s fine either way, because his four years with the program were neither amazing nor pitiful. They can be described as anything from a slight disappointment to a minor success, depending on your perspective and expectations.

If you believe that picking up the pieces from the absolute travesty that was failing to qualify for the World Cup from the richest nation and one of the two most talented nations amongst CONCACAF men’s programs was really hard, then you think Berhalter getting the men to the 2022 World Cup and surviving the group with a young group was a solid step in the right direction and a minor success.

If you believe that the American soccer climate is such that you should always make the World Cup out of one of the world’s lesser confederations and that the Yanks progressed as the second team of a group in which they were the second-ranked team according to FIFA and Elo Ratings, well, you can have a different standard.

The Yanks will never again fail to qualify for the World Cup given the expanded field, but hosts have historically had a drastically-improved chance to reach the semifinals. THe federation would have to be confident that picking the best squad regardless of how it reflects on his previous selections — let alone a Best XI — is going to happen under a given coach.

Berhalter’s 49 and is far from the worst or best boss in USMNT history. Whoever’s in the job four years from now will have a chance to go down as either one. Choose wisely, fed. And Gregg! Who knows how far his star could rise with a solid run in Europe, and history says there will be the chance to reconnect with the USMNT job.

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Premier League table, 2022-23 season

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If it’s the 2022-23 Premier League table you’re after, you’ve come to the right place.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]

We’re at the 2022 World Cup break, and the final few rounds of Premier League fixtures caused so many shocks.

Who’s looking like title contenders and/or favorites?

Almost at the halfway mark of the 2022-23 season, Arsenal and Manchester City are looking head and shoulders above the rest.

The Gunners will have their hands full for the duration of their title challenge, as Erling Haaland continues to take the Premier League by storm with an almost impossible goal-scoring record.

Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United are locked in a battle for the top four, while Liverpool have improved and will be back in the Champions League scrap and Chelsea are struggling.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Who are the early-season candidates for relegation?

Newly promoted Nottingham Forest moved off the bottom of the table with a win before the break, with Wolves and Southampton currently occupying the other two relegation places.

Leicester have picked up a few big wins, while West Ham, Everton and Leeds all find themselves within a few points of the bottom-three after a topsy-turvy start.

Below you will find the latest Premier League table.


Premier League table – Matchweek 16

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England vs France: How to watch live, stream link, team news

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Match 59 of the 2022 World Cup features a pair of European heavyweights duking it out for a place in the semifinals when England faces France on Saturday.

Didier Deschamps’ France is bidding to become a back-to-back World Cup winner, but Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions are tournament-hardened and have shown their explosive nature three times this tournament.

STREAM ENGLAND vs FRANCE LIVE

France beat Poland 3-1 in its Round of 16 match while England overcame a dodgy start to pound Senegal 3-0.

Neither team can say its faced a test like this in the tournament, and this could be a fantastic fight in Qatar.

[ LIVE: World Cup 2022 schedule, how to watch, scores, hub ]

Here is everything you need for England vs France.


How to watch England vs France live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 2pm ET, Saturday, December 1
Stadium: Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
TV channels en Español: Telemundo
Streaming en Español: Peacock (all 64 matches)


Key storylines, players to watch closely

England will look to Harry Kane, though the question remains who will flank the Tottenham center forward. Marcus Rashford’s been very good but Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden got the starting spots against Senegal and it paid off for Southgate.

Kylian Mbappe has been borderline unstoppable and will test Harry Maguire, John Stones, and friends and Antoine Griezmann pulls the strings in behind and Aurelien Tchouameni continues to strengthen his reputation in the center of the pitch.


England quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 5
World Cup titles: 1 (1966)
World Cup appearances: 15
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from UEFA
Coach: Gareth Southgate
Key players: Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Jordan Pickford

France quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 4
World Cup titles: 2 (1998, 2018)
World Cup appearances: 15
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from UEFA (Won Group D)
Coach: Didier Deschamps
Key players: Kylian Mbappe, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann

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Croatia vs Brazil: How to watch live, stream link, team news

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World Cup-savvy Croatia stands in the way of stylish Brazil’s pursuit of a sixth World Cup crown, and the pair promise a complex match-up on Friday in Al Rayyan.

Match 58 of the 2022 World Cup kicks off the quarterfinals as Neymar leads Tite’s star-studded CONMEBOL powers into a match against the 2018 runners-up.

STREAM CROATIA vs BRAZIL LIVE

Croatia got past Japan in penalties and will now dream of the two wins that could set it back in the final where France could again be waiting for a juicy rematch.

Croatia needed penalties to get past Japan in the Round of 16, while Brazil pasted South Korea 4-1.  Croatia has never beaten Brazil in four meetings, losing at the 2006 and 2014 World Cups.

[ LIVE: World Cup 2022 schedule, how to watch, scores, hub ]

Here is everything you need for Croatia vs Brazil.


How to watch Croatia vs Brazil live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 10am ET, Friday, December 9
Stadium: Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan
TV channels en Español: Telemundo
Streaming en Español: Peacock (all 64 matches)


Key storylines, players to watch closely

Croatia’s Dominik Livakovic was fantastic in penalties versus Japan to get here, but Luka Modric continues to do the things that get Croatia out of trouble and puts the opponents into heaps of it. Josko Gvardiola has arguably been the defender of the tournament, and the 20-year-old looks to test his mettle again against the Selecao.

Pick a Brazil player who’s failed to impress and you’ve achieved a mighty feat. Neymar’s been fantastic when healthy while RIcharlison is in serious pursuit of the Golden Boot. Alisson Becker flexed his muscles once or twice versus South Korea and figures to be busier as the competition continues to heat up in Qatar.


Croatia quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 12
World Cup titles: 0
World Cup appearances: 6
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from UEFA (1st place)
Coach: Zlatko Dalic
Key players: Luka Modric, Andrej Kramaric, Mateo Kovacic, Josko Gvardiol

Brazil quick facts

Current FIFA world ranking: 1
World Cup titles: 5 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
World Cup appearances: 22
How they qualified: Qualified automatically from CONMEBOL (1st place)
Coach: Tite
Key players: Neymar, Thiago Silva, Casemiro, Alisson Becker

Follow @NicholasMendola