Frisco, TX – FC Dallas opened the 2013 MLS season at home against Western Conference rival Colorado Rapids. These two teams that met in the MLS Cup Final (thanks to the league’s convoluted playoff structure) only three seasons ago are both looking to regain their power broker status in the West after disappointing campaigns in 2012 that saw each miss the playoffs.
The Hoops were a trendy pick by many soccer scribes to be a playoff team this season based on the apparent wealth of talent at forward (veterans Blas Perez and Fabian Castillo were joined by offseason acquisitions Eric Hassli and returning Dallas prodigal son Kenny Cooper), a strong midfield led by 2010 MVP David Ferreira and a defense anchored by the recently re-signed George John, rising star Matt Hedges and new arrival (and Peruvian national team keeper) Raul Fernandez.
Saturday night’s game at FC Dallas Stadium in front of 18,075 fans was one of those games that based on the stats, Colorado quite clearly (and easily) should have won. The Rapids had more than 60% of the possession, attempted over 200 more passes, sent in twice as many crosses, earned 6 corners (to one for FCD) and had four more attempts on goal. But stats do not win soccer games. Goals and keeping your opponent out of your net do and Dallas came out on top 1-0 thanks to a highlight reel-worthy (or lowlight, from Colorado’s point-of-view) gaffe by backup keeper Steward Ceus gave Dallas midfielder Jackson the easiest goal he’ll ever score as a professional.
Observations of a woefully underpaid soccer writer:
Butterfingers – One game is certainly too early to pass final judgement, but Raul Fernandez was extremely shaky in goal. Time and again he failed to hold onto what should have been easy balls for a professional keeper to corral or was hesitant coming off of his line, both of which made his defense work extra hard to save his bacon. Matt Hedges in particular had a game-saving clearance in second-half extra time on a ball in the 6-yard box that Fernandez inexplicably did not get to. Colorado never made Fernendez pay for his mistakes, but that luck will not last if the drops and timid play continue. Dallas Head Coach Schellas Hyndman showed support for his keeper by saying he thought he played, “very good”, but any casual observer could see that Fernandez did not play well and Dallas was lucky not to give up an easy goal (like Colorado did). It is possible Raul simply had first MLS game jitters, but if his form does not drastically improve in practice and the next game, I expect Chris Seitz to be starting in the very near future.
Oh Daniel, Where Art Thou? – With Daniel Hernandez retired and the pricey Julian de Guzman not re-signed, FCD entered the season without an established presence at defensive midfield. Midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson (cursed with the same #27 as least season’s atrocious James Marcellin) was given the task of playing the position on Saturday night and the former Houston Dynamo player almost looked like a mole sent by his former team for most of the evening. He consistently looked lost in his positioning, he made poor decisions passing the ball, he gave up possession easily and he offered little creativity moving forward. Schellas was diplomatic in his post-game comments saying Watson’s performance was, “…a little bit up and down.” A veteran MLS player shouldn’t have had any first game nervousness, so he doesn’t get even the mild pass I gave to Fernandez. This is a definite position for concern and I won’t be surprised to see other players in the CDM role this week in practice.
Well, well, well you just can’t tell…well, well, well my Michel – Early in the first half, regular left back Jair Benitez took a knee to the ribs from Raul on a 50-50 ball where the two Dallas players and Colorado’s speedy Deshorn Brown all arrived at about the same time. Benitez had to leave the game and make way for newly signed Brazilian left back Michel. Short of scoring or assisting on a goal, he could not possibly have had a more impressive debut. He was calm on the ball, made excellent decisions defensively, was a presence moving forward and immediately shored up Dallas’ defense according to Coach Hyndman: “I thought he did well. In the first half, Colorado had a lot of diagonal balls to Atiba <Harris>, most of those balls coming from <Brian> Mullan, and Atiba was winning the air battles against Jair…I thought when Michel went in, he did a much better job of nullifying those balls and making it a competitive battle”.
On top of all that, he has a highly accurate and powerful left-footed free kick, which he displayed in the ’35 minute. Kenny Cooper earned the free kick juuuuuust outside the penalty area on Colorado’s defensive left. Michel stepped up and hit a very hard, curling ground shot (not easy to do) that Ceus couldn’t hold and Dallas just missed scoring off of the rebound. Regardless of Benitez’s health, it would be a shock if Michel isn’t installed as the new starter at left back. Coach Hyndman went with Jair in this match mainly because of his league experience, but the difference in quality with Michel should overcome any advantage Benitez has as a veteran MLS player. Possibly random thought: Benitez could be an option at defensive midfield.
You are(n’t) the wind beneath my wings – For reasons known only to God and Schellas Hyndman, David Ferreira started the match in a wide midfield position and later in the 2nd half, he and forward Fabian Castillo switched places. Neither worked well as FC Dallas was absolutely abysmal passing through the midfield for the vast majority of the match. The one exception was a nice sequence in the ’64 minute that saw the point of attack switched from side-to-side, which scrambled the Houston defense and ultimately led to a good chance by Ferreira from 18 yards out that went just wide. Otherwise, they had trouble linking three passes together and Coach Hyndam admitted as much in his opening remarks to the media by saying that Colorado controlled the middle of the field.
It wasn’t the most artfully earned three points, but an ugly win is better than an entertaining loss in the standings. FC Dallas travels to the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles this weekend where they hope to put together a more complete performance in front of an expected crowd of 20,000 or so empty seats disguised as Chivas USA supporters. They’ll be back home at FC Dallas Stadium on March 17 to face arch-rival Houston Dynamo.