When does the season start?
“On opening day,” an MLS naivete may say, unaware of the true implications of the question. Because the season doesn’t really, really start right away. Everyone knows that in the beginning of the season, nothing is real, no statistical leader counts for anything. The Chicago Fire went undefeated in their first five games, but no one expected that to last forever. In early days anything is possible, men can dream, but they too know that reality sets in quick. Only when the sample size is large enough can we start making conclusions about performances and individual players, but at what point is that? When do we know for sure that our assumptions can actually be backed up by the current data? According to my statistics teacher it’s when n > 30, but I didn’t pay enough attention in class to know how to apply that here. I should go study for my test. Here’s some tactics.
FC Dallas has had a varied history throughout its MLS tenure, peaking with a Western Conference double in 2015 and 2016. However player departures and the natural ebbs and flows of dynasties have brought the Texans down to Earth, living in playoff mediocrity for the last few years. But although their success has not been as tangible on the MLS table, FC Dallas have gained a reputation as one of the best youth academy organizations in the United States. US Soccer’s youth revolution was kickstarted by the transition from the college-to-pro model to the traditional academy model, and FC Dallas have been at the forefront for years.
The club’s academy system boasts an impressive resume, having produced players like Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon, Chris Richards, Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, and Ricardo Pepi. The conveyor belt of talent stems from years of investment into their youth ranks, dipping into the far reaches of the Southwest to find and develop premier talent. Much like the famed Red Bulls system, the club promises a clear path to the first team, a vow that has lead to the great success of Homegrowns in the starting XI. More recent academy prodigies like Edwin Cerillo and Brandon Servania likely held faith in the organization because of those who came before them. When players know that they can break through to the first time, impress in MLS, and move on to Europe if possible, the trust that’s created allows the academy cycle to continue, and the conveyor belt to roll on.
2021’s FC Dallas has certainly reaped the rewards of its academy investment, and the combination of promising Homegrown young players, smart external signings, and new coach Nico Estevez have given the club a lively start to the year. In the last two years alone, FC Dallas have earned roughly $30 million from the sales of Homegrowns Ricardo Pepi, Bryan Reynolds, Tanner Tessman, and Reggie Cannon. Conversely, in the past offseason, the club splashed about $7 million on highly touted teenager Alan Velasco, and made a blockbuster trade for USMNT regular Paul Arriola. Both have slotted straight into the starting XI for Dallas, and have been great parts of the upturn in form.
The Texans have burst out of the gates with a 3-1-2 record in its opening six games, currently sitting in fifth place in the West, 2 points behind leaders LAFC. The media frenzy over their start has been justified, the side has scored 10 goals and lies fifth in the league in the category. The club is playing beautiful soccer, new coach Nico Estevez has established a fluid 4-3-3 system that allows for creativity and attractive attacking. They play the kind of soccer people tune in to watch, an emphasis on off-the-ball movement creates pretty passing patterns that lead to goals. Shifting from side to side, silky one-twos, the creativity of the midfield and attackers allows them to play with flair and style. New Designated Player, and academy product, Jesus Ferreira has spearheaded the new Dallas. The diminutive striker has replaced last season’s breakout Ricardo Pepi with ease, slotting in at the number 9 role and becoming the main focus of the team. However Ferreira plays the role much differently that Pepi did, he’s thrived for years as a false nine, dropping into the midfield to pick up the ball and help in creation as well as finishing. Ferreira is in the top 4 percent of MLS forwards with regards to touches in the middle third of the pitch, and what this does is create spacing problems for opposing defenses. When Ferreira drops deeper, a center-back needs to push forward to stay with him. In doing so, space opens up where the center-back used to be for the wingers to drift inside and exploit. If the center-back lets Ferreira roam, or a midfielder tracks him, then space is left for the free man in the midfield to drive at the defense. There’s a reason Pep Guardiola is such an avid user of the false 9, when executed well it’s extremely difficult to cope with, and takes disciplined players well versed in the system to counter it. Jesus Ferreira currently holds the tie lead for the Golden Boot race, and his early success has mirrored, and massively influenced, that of his club.
FC Dallas and Jesus Ferreira’s attacking success has certainly gotten headlines, but an understated aspect to their success has been the rigidity of their defense. The side have conceded a mere 4 times, the third lowest total in the league. Anchored by their high press model and the performances of experienced center-back duo Jose Martinez and Matt Hedges, the club has stayed firm in the back while overrunning opponents on the opposite side of the field. The squad has allowed the fifth lowest amount of shots in the league, they simply snuff chances out before the materialize and go on the attack immediately. Although prone to the occasional mistake, the team has been electric and doesn’t look like stopping. Their best performance so far was a dominant 4-1 win against last season’s MLS Cup runner up, the Portland Timbers. Jesus Ferreira stole the show with a perfect hattrick, his creative ability on full display, but the Timbers were restricted to a mere 4 shots on target, Dallas shut them down completely and expert finishing by Ferreira sealed the deal. Buoyed by the gradually filling home crowds, FC Dallas make a horrifying opponent for a Red Bulls side attempting to prove a point to the league after early missteps.
The Red Bulls are certainly not in crisis mode, sitting 3rd in the East with very promising underlying statistics, but psychologically the team, and the fanbase, needs a win. FC Dallas are not the side Struber’s men would prefer to be playing at such a crucial mental point in the season, but the scheduling gods have placed this task upon them nonetheless. But the Texans are not invulnerable, and while difficult the task is not impossible. For one, Dallas have yet to win away from home this season, and while the Red Bulls have conversely yet to win at home, one can count on Harrison crowds to give Red Bulls an advantage on home soil. It seems Estevez leaves the creativity at the stadium when the team travels, as they’ve averaged a meager .55 xG away from home, compared to 1.75 when in Frisco. And despite the attacking flair they’ve shown so far, Dallas have actually outperformed with regards to scoring, only amassing a total xG of 8.1 despite their 10 goals scored. The team has certainly been boosted by fantastic finishing from Jesus Ferreira (and an unbelievable goal from Brandon Servania in their most recent game against the Rapids), and to further prove the issue Dallas have actually been only mediocre in shooting, hitting the target an average of 4 times per game, placing them spot in the middle of the league in the statistic. It would be a stretch to say that Dallas have simply been lucky so far, but if the recently stingy Red Bulls defense can limit scoring opportunities, statistically Dallas’ goalscoring form has to drop eventually.
FC Dallas have opted for their away kit for the match in Harrison, a baby blue sure to contrast well with the vibrant red of the home side. The design is simple but effective, calming and relaxing, a departure from the harsher red and blue typically used for their home kits. Defender Eddie Munjoma boldly described the kit as “sick”, the small garnishing marks that the club website claims represent the “diverse fanbase” adding a nice touch to complete a clean look. It’s not spectacular, but it’s good. Pleasant. Like getting clothes for the holidays as a teenager. I wouldn’t ask for it, but it’s nice now that it’s here.
A comforting 6 out of 10.
New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
FC Dallas (4-3-3)
Players to Watch
It’s no surprise that the Colombian-born forward has been one of the main talking points prior to the match, as previously mentioned his electric start to the season has been the engines behind the FC Dallas turnaround. Currently on 5 goals in 465 minutes, his good form has earned him a more prominent role in the US national team picture, with some fans even calling for him to start over fellow FC Dallas graduate Ricardo Pepi. Despite only being 21, the striker seems to have been around forever, having signed a Homegrown contract 5 years ago when he was 16, and becoming a regular 2 years after that. He’s quietly been one of the better players on the side, often overshadowed by others, but with 2022 being a transitory year for the roster, Ferreira has taken full advantage of the opportunity to be the star, taking the number 10 and establishing himself in the scoring charts.
Ferreira’s development has been far from linear, despite showing promise from an early age he has taken time to fully grow into the player he can be. Ferreira has always been at his best when playing as a false 9, he lacks the physicality to be a classic 9, often losing aerial duels and frequently being dispossessed, and his dribbling and control is not up to par with the winger role he’s been shunted into in the past. But with Estevez building the false 9 into his preferred 4-3-3, Ferreira’s skillset has been unleashed. Ferreira is excellent at finding space on the pitch, he’s in the top 15 percent of MLS forwards in touches per game, and is able to always create openings for himself to receive the ball. The false 9 allows him the positional freedom to roam, and as he does it so effectively it allows him to utilize his exceptional passing ability, where he’s skilled at finding other forwards in and around the penalty area. He’s able to rack up assists with ease, and his superb finishing ability means that when he finds himself with the ball after his characteristic late runs into the box, he’s able to find the back of the net.
The current setup relies on Ferreira to create and finish, and while he’s done that so far one must wonder if the team is too dependent on their wonderkid. Ferreira has only missed one game this season, a trip to Chicago after the international break. And interestingly enough, the 0-0 draw was Dallas’ worst offensive performance of the season so far, as they totaled 0.3 xG with 1 shot on target. It could just be a coincidental outlier, but if the Red Bull defense can prevent Jesus from being Dallas’ savior, then Struber will be a much more relaxed man.
Paul Arriola & Alan Velasco
If Jesus Ferreira is expected to create opportunities for Dallas on Saturday, then Arriola and Velasco will be the ones expected to finish them. The pair have been the most productive out of the squad’s wingers, their lone start together so far being the 4-1 Portland win where Arriola and Velasco got their first goal and assist for the club respectively. The duo lead the club’s wingers in shots per game, and have given Nico Estevez selection headaches with Jader Obrian also in the picture. The two represent two seemingly contradictory transfer philosophies, with Arriola arriving in a huge trade this offseason as an experienced MLS player and US international, and Velasco also arriving as a promising young talent from abroad trying to use the club as a stepping stone. Different clubs in MLS have used both to varying degrees in their histories, but Dallas seem to have found the perfect combination as they approach the market from all angles. They both understand the movement necessary to make Dallas’ system work, taking a look at their third goal against Portland one can see the cogs at work. While the ball is still in Dallas’ defensive half, Velasco drifts to the left touchline, and when Paxton Pomykal receives the ball he’s able to find the young Argentine in acres of space with a first-time ball. Arriola, seeing this, makes a darting run inwards, and when Velasco serves a tantalizing low cross in Arriola lets it go into the space he once occupied, which is now free of the defenders that were dragged with him and solely occupied by Jesus Ferreira, who finished with aplomb. The finish was great, but the goal doesn’t happen without Velasco and Arriola recognizing where the space was and moving there before the ball even gets close to them. Off-the-ball movement is crucial to Dallas’ offense, and the freshly signed duo will play a big part in making sure it impacts the game.
If you haven’t noticed, Dallas has a pretty good attack. They can run rampant when given the freedom, so on Saturday it’ll be up to Aaron Long and the Red Bulls defense to take away said liberties. Struber has revolutionized the Red Bulls defense to be one of the best in the league ever since his arrival, and captain Long will be the man in charge of stifling the in form Dallas attack. As previously mentioned, it’s difficult to play against good false 9s. Defenses must remain organized and disciplined, keeping the lines between defensive midfield and the backline compact to reduce the amount of space available for the deep forward. Midfielders and defenders alike must remain completely focused to be aware of where the player is, and of any runs being made by other players. It’s important not to get spread out and dragged out of position, so a leader in the backline like Long will have to be in full voice, keeping his men organized and conducting players positionally. The man with the mullet is in good form so far this season, and if he’s able to put in another good performance against the potent Dallas offense, then the rest of the team can relax a little more and focus on their own attacking.
But as much emphasis has been placed by certain cynical and pessimistic writers on the Dallas attack, the Red Bulls still have a chance to affect the game on their own terms. With Struber naming the Brazilian as a player ready for a full game, the team will need Luquinhas at his full powers in order to unlock a defense that has been stubborn for much of the season so far. The new Designated Player had a very promising full debut against Montreal, and was one of the best players on the field despite the loss. For a team that’s lacked in creativity for so long, and one that in Caden Clark lost the only true playmaker they had, Luquinhas completing his acclimation into the first team will be a breath of fresh air for all fans. He is all that was promised upon his arrival, a good and direct dribbler, capable of picking out teammates with through balls or quick interplay with his fellow attackers. He’ll be hoping to make a more concrete impact against Dallas, where the Red Bulls are likely to be starved for chances. The burden of creation will be on him, and a good performance can really boost the team in their toughest test yet.
The Red Bulls defense holds firm once again, but the attack fails to materialize as home supporters are left waiting for a positive result, the team dropping two points in a 1-1 draw.