photo by Matthew Eamons/USA Today Sports
By FRANCO PANIZO
Ask about FC Dallas’ success this season and the players most likely to be mentioned are Fabian Castillo, Matt Hedges, and Mauro Diaz. Yet there is another player who has been just as integral to the club’s impressive campaign but continues to fly under the radar.
That player is Kellyn Acosta.
FC Dallas is a serious contender to claim the Supporters’ Shield seven months into the MLS season, and a key reason for that is the play of Acosta. The young defensive midfielder has quietly been a staple for the club that boasts one of the best records this year, starting and going the distance for FC Dallas more often than not.
In fact, Acosta has not missed a single minute of action since returning from the Under-20 World Cup in mid-June. He has rattled off 12 consecutive starts, played all 90 minutes each time, and impressed along the way with his ability to read the game and break up plays.
“Kellyn has been maturing a lot, especially because he’s in his best moment physically,” FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja told SBI. “He’s gotten stronger, he’s overcome the period of injuries that he had last year. Fabian Bazan, our strength and conditioning coach, has put in a lot of work with Kellyn and he’s helped him recover in a manner that he can feel comfortable playing games because talent he’s always had.
“What he was lacking was to be in a good physical state, and he has that now.”
Acosta’s improved physical state a year after being limited to just 15 appearances because of persisting injuries has helped Dallas tremendously. Not only has the 20-year-old midfielder shown to be more capable of handing the rigors of a long and physically-demanding season, but Pareja has also seen Acosta make strides in what is asked of him tactically.
The overall maturation that Acosta has demonstrated as a player is why Pareja has no qualms in saying that the youngster is “very important” to Dallas’ scheme, labeling him as the “link player” that connects the defense to the attack. Acosta’s skills have provided FC Dallas with a different dimension, and that has been rewarding for both the club and player.
“Obviously it’s been a great year for me, and I think playing in the World Cup has helped me tremendously,” Acosta told SBI. “Coming back I’ve been gaining a lot of confidence. I’ve scored two goals so far this year. It wasn’t more than I dreamed of – I knew it would eventually come – but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.
“I’m happy with myself and I’m proud of the fact that I can do that. Also, I’ve been given the opportunity that I’ve had in this position and I’m just glad the team believes in me and I’m very excited for the future.”
While Acosta is looking ahead to a possible Supporters’ Shield capture and probable playoffs appearance, most observers can still look back and remember him for his mixed showing at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. Acosta was tasked with playing left back in the tournament, and he had both good and bad moments as the Americans reached the quarterfinals.
The position was a chance of pace from January’s World Cup qualifying campaign – when U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos used Acosta as a central midfielder – but it was not completely unfamiliar to the FC Dallas Homegrown Player. Acosta had played fullback before at the club level, and had shown promise there on a number of occasions.
Still, it is one thing to perform well there at the club level. It’s another to have to do so against some of the top up-and-coming talents from across the world on a major stage.
“I had a little bit of trouble opening up to my left side, because I’m right-footed obviously,” said Acosta of playing left back. “I think that was my biggest thing. Once the game progressed, I think I did a better job of doing that and allowing myself to get comfortable. It’s preferable when you’re at the back to be on the right than left – obviously it was a tough match-up playing against those guys on Ukraine and Serbia – but I think I handled myself well.”
The 5-foot-10 Acosta knows how tough it can be to adapt from one position to another, but he still has no problem playing wherever is needed, whether it be for his club or country. He is versatile and skilled enough that he can fill multiple positions, and might need to again in the future.
Regardless, he admittedly feels most comfortable playing in the center of the park. It is no secret then that Acosta is thriving at that position for FC Dallas these days, serving as a key defensive cog for a club that has given up the third-fewest goals (31) this season.
“I feel like when I’m in the middle I have more room to operate and I think I have a little bit more time and space where I can see the field and I can connect passes and find the forwards and other midfielders,” said Acosta. “At outside back, it’s kind of tougher for me. You have to be pretty technical to keep the ball in a tight space and move the ball and look up. There’s a lot of differences, but positionally wise I think it’s a little bit easier defensive mid where you’re covering a lot of ground and you’re covering the centerback as well.”
There are still areas where the blossoming Acosta can improve, of course. Pareja would like to see Acosta evolve into a player who is in and around the penalty area more often, setting up goal-scoring chances for himself and his teammates. Acosta also thinks he can improve offensively, but wants to be better at holding the ball so as to help his team keep possession for longer stretches.
Those improvements will likely come with more playing time, and there is nothing indicating that his role with FC Dallas will be diminished down the stretch. Acosta has enjoyed a good first seven months to the season by making the club’s defensive midfield position his own, and now it is all about building on that and finishing strong.
“I’m excited that Oscar is giving me the opportunity. I think I’ve been making the most of it,” said Acosta. “I’ve been coming in and I’ve been trying to get as involved as much as possible in the middle and help the team break up plays and also helping the attack.
“I think I’ve been doing a good job with that. Obviously there are things I could work on, but so far so good.”