FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s been more than a year since the New England Revolution and FC Dallas squared off in a competitive match, so we caught up with FCD’s Digital Media Manager, Carter Baum, to get a bit of insight into Oscar Pareja’s group, who’ve started the 2018 season 1-0-3.
After a frustrating back half of the 2017 season, in what ways has this FC Dallas side improved for 2018?
CB: The biggest focus this season, at least from a preparation standpoint, is to keep legs fresh and ready to go over a grueling nine-month season. The team did not make a mammoth trip to Argentina this preseason for CCL prep, instead opting for a preseason heavily based in Frisco. There’s also likely going to be some more squad rotation throughout the season to combat a slew of minor late-season injuries that popped up in 2017. On the field, the club has brought in players like Reto Ziegler and Anton Nedyalkov along the back line, as well as giving a starting role to Homegrown Reggie Cannon, to help shore up things defensively, while re-tooling the offense slightly with newcomer Santiago Mosquera and likely more time for players like Paxton Pomykal and Cristian Colman.
What did Oscar Pareja learn about his group from the four-game home-stand to open the season?
CB: The biggest takeaway from the home-stand was the ability for the defensive core to continue to get minutes and get comfortable with each other. The looming focus at-large during the four games has been on a lack of finishing up front despite chances, but things are still being worked on there. To get through the stretch with just three goals allowed considering of the back seven (goalkeeper, defenders, defensive midfielders), only two were in starting roles a year ago and three weren’t even with the club. NASL veteran Jimmy Maurer has taken the starting role in relief of Jesse Gonzalez and run with it and Jacori Hayes has put a real question mark as to who sees the field when Kellyn Acosta returns with his stellar early-season play. While the offense continues to look for answers and the perfect fit, they’ve earned points because of the defense’s ability on the other end of the field.
What’s been the key to FCD’s defensive resolve through the first four games (just three goals against)?
CB: In one word: experience. Even though the players are new, the ones brought in bring with them a level of play that easily adapts based on their own personal journeys. Reto Ziegler has been to two World Cups and played in three of the top leagues in the world. Anton Nedyalkov is still young but has been playing first-division soccer in Bulgaria since he was 18. And to top it off, you have 2016 MLS Defender of the Year Matt Hedges as the lone holdover looking to bounce back from his own struggles late last season. The one outlier is Reggie Cannon, who was signed as a Homegrown after just a year at UCLA for a reason and learned under the wing of MLS All-Star Hernan Grana last season. With so many new faces in such a communication-heavy role, being able to play minutes together is not something you can easily replicate in practice and each game the unit is continuing to improve more and more.
How have new additions like Reto Ziegler, Anton Nedyalkov, and Santiago Mosquera changed the look of this squad?
CB: Ziegler and Nedyalkov are probably the two biggest additions to this point. The leadership Ziegler brings to such a young squad is invaluable – not only in the moments when he speaks up, but more importantly knowing when to be a leader by example. Matt Hedges told me this week he’s the best central defender that he’s ever played alongside. Nedyalkov has been a slower addition to the squad after dealing with some Achilles’ tendonitis in preseason and early in CCL action, but over the last two weeks has been a huge asset in the attack with his ability to overlap and combine with Roland Lamah on the left wing, while also playing a physical, shutdown defender role. Mosquera, despite a very quick show of skill in his first action with the FCD in the preseason meeting between the two sides, is being brought on at a much slower pace. He’s made appearances in all four MLS games with one start, but the play of Roland Lamah early on has been tough to overcome and crack a starting role. The Colombian is being eased into the team with the full knowledge that there’s an adaptation period to the league and I expect his role will continue to grow as the season progresses.
Who has been the biggest early-season surprise?
CB: This is a tough one, especially after touching on all the big individual impacts FCD has seen early on, but I think Jacori Hayes has to take this spot. With the additions on defense, you know what you’re getting into from the start, and while Roland Lamah has stepped his game up early on, he’s a double-digit goal scorer from a year ago. Hayes has taken full ownership of his opportunity in the defensive midfield and has become arguably Dallas’ best player there over the opening month. He’s a hard-nosed tackler, but also has played as the linking midfield role, assisting on Lamah’s goal against Portland and sending the ball to Mauro Diaz before his 60-yard assist last week. Like I mentioned earlier, I think he’s gone from Kellyn Acosta’s fill-in early in the season to full-on competitor for a midfield spot. He’s come a long way from his first MLS start last September where he saw yellow twice in the opening half hour against the Red Bulls.