By ADAM TROXTELL
After consecutive seasons without playoff soccer, FC Dallas went old school in its subsequent coaching appointment to make 2014 very different.
Former FCD midfielder Oscar Pareja transformed the team into a respected attacking unit that was a Seattle away goal from reaching the 2014 Western Conference final. It was exactly the kind of turnaround needed for an organization still dreaming about what could have been in that 2010 MLS Cup Final.
Under the tutelage of his fellow countryman, Colombian winger Fabian Castillo had his best season since joining the team in 2011. He scored 10 goals and tallied three assists to earn attention from teams like Club America and prompt FCD to offer him a five-year contract that was signed in the preseason.
Castillo was only bested by Panamanian striker Blas Perez, who led the team with 11 goals and six assists. He was the central figure in an attack that also included on-loan Colombian winger Andres Escobar, who has since returned to Dynamo Kyiv, and young designated player Mauro Diaz.
The flash was coupled with the backbone of the squad, made up of veterans like Stephen Keel, Je-Vaughn Watson, Adam Moffatt, and Michel. Their contributions provided the balance necessary for a consistent run into the playoffs.
Ahead of the 2015 season, FCD has somehow managed to get even younger. Pareja remains hopeful that his youthful side, which still retains the core of the squad from last season, can continue to build on what he called a “good starting point.”
FC DALLAS SEASON PREVIEW
2014 FINISH: 16-12-6, 41 points (fourth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: GK Dan Kennedy (dispersal draft), M Kyle Bekker (traded from Toronto FC), Michael Barrios (signed) , Atiba Harris (re-entry draft)
KEY LOSSES: Jair Benitez (out of contract), Andres Escobar (return from loan), Raul Fernandez (out of contract), Adam Moffat (out of contract), Hendry Thomas (out of contract), Je-Vaughn Watson (out of contract), George John (expansion draft to NYCFC)
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Michael Barrios. The Colombian attacker was a late acquisition in the preseason, but he fills an important void left by Escobar on the right. He scored 35 goals in 136 appearances for Colombian first division side Uniautonoma between 2011 and 2014, and at 23 years old Barrios is another talent entering his prime years for the FCD roster.
PRESSURE IS ON: Tesho Akindele. The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year must prove his 2014 season was not a fluke. After netting seven goals and tallying three assists in his first season, Akindele has had a whirlwind offseason that included a U.S. Men’s National Team camp and an impending decision regarding his American and Canadian dual nationality. He’ll have to deal with that on top of the increased hype.
The FCD attack still looks lethal, and this will drive the team further than anything else it has.
Perez shows no signs of slowing down, and hopefully the injuries that held Diaz to just 9 starts last season will not show up again. Couple this with the addition of Barrios, and Castillo with his new, long-term deal, and a dedicated line of attack comes into view.
“The market for him was very aggressive, and we kept him here,” Pareja said. “It shows a lot of commitment from the ownership. It was huge for the club.”
Unfortunately for FCD, offseason losses might lead to a soft core underneath an attacking shell. Watson’s exit leaves a hole on the right side of defense that over the long-term is expected to be filled by Kellyn Acosta. He has been injured much of the preseason, forcing FCD to reach into the past again and bring back winger Atiba Harris to convert into a new role.
“With Atiba, we have a project and we need to convert him into a right back,” Pareja said. “At this point, I see a lot of characteristics for that spot. At the same time, we’d like to keep his natural instinct to go forward. It’s a good fit for us.”
The left side is also missing the experienced Jair Benitez, leaving youngsters like Moises Hernandez, first-round draft pick Otis Earle, or Zach Lloyd to fill that side.
FCD also lost strength in the midfield, meaning either Victor Ulloa or Michel will need to perform more defensive duties than they are used to. The addition of Kyle Bekker was another big offseason move, but his role will be to link defense and attack.
“I think he has the attributes to play in the team,” Pareja said about Bekker. “He’s a technical player, young, and he helps to link in the middle of the pitch.”
One thing this team will certainly be is driven. There are positional battles everywhere that will play out over the first month or two of the season. Youngster Ryan Hollingshead, reigning Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele, and now Barrios all can slot in on the right side of attack.
Uruguayan David Texeira will keep Perez on his toes up top. Even at goalkeeper, Pareja has thrown 19-year-old Jesse Gonzalez as a contender to start ahead of veterans Dan Kennedy and Chris Seitz, and all of them have shared preseason action.
“It will be very natural just to pick one of them (the goalkeepers),” Pareja said. “I like competition at every position. We have a lot of guys that can start. That’s going to make each of them better.”
With an average age of about 23, this FCD squad will need to overcome the struggles that accompany youth in order to ensure 2015 is, at the very least, another step toward returning to the glory of 2010.
“It’s difficult for me to be in a different frame of mind, as a player and now, than not to try and win,” Pareja said. “I will not accept any player that is not dreaming about it. Many people think we’re too young, but we’re going to keep dreaming about it.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP