Apr 21, 2018; Frisco, TX, USA; FC Dallas midfielder Jacori Hayes (15) and defender Matt Hedges (24) defend against Philadelphia Union forward David Accam (7) during the first half at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
As Major League Soccer kicks back into play post-World Cup break, teams are gearing up for a playoff run. FC Dallas longs for another playoff berth to move past its collapse in 2017. Here are some of FC Dallas’ top surprises in the first half of the MLS season:
Jacori Hayes easily has been the biggest surprise this season. He went from being loaned out to the Tulsa Roughnecks and getting sent off in 37 minutes against the New York Red Bulls in 2017 for two rash challenges, to playing meaningful minutes for Dallas, playing 878 minutes this season. He’s been part of the midfield competition so frequently mentioned and played great soccer in the first few weeks of the season before having an off game in the team’s 3-1 loss at New York City FC on April 29.
Hayes’ strength is how he does the little things. He had to play the box-to-box role while Kellyn Acosta was out with an injury. He played fine in that role, but he excelled defensively and forced regular starter midfielder Carlos Gruezo to the bench with his play. Hayes’ passing was crisp and sharp in the time he played but the current play of Victor Ulloa and Carlos Gruezo have cut into his playing time. However, Óscar Pareja has shown that when one player has an off match that another player has the opportunity to win back his spot. He does well in tight spaces and makes good decisions. Again, Hayes does a lot of small things right to provide a spark off the bench, especially when the team needs it to seal a game.
Former Dallas centerback Walker Zimmerman was shipped off to Los Angeles FC after a tough 2017 season, and the team was forced to find a replacement. In comes Reto Ziegler, a seasoned veteran out of Switzerland, to fill the gap.
His experience shows when he plays, not often making bad decisions. There have been some instances where his sometimes aggressive play catches up to him, such as his red card in the 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy on May 12, but overall the positives outweigh the negatives.
The one aspect of Ziegler’s game that seems to be overlooked is his distribution from the back. Often, Dallas is able to bypass the midfield off a long-ball pass from Ziegler, who then springs quick attacks by finding Michael Barrios or the head of Cristian Colman.
Ziegler averages 6.1 long passes per game, which is highest on the team not including goalkeepers. Zimmerman was working on that aspect of his game while at Dallas, but Ziegler has it now. That combined with his experience has this new backline looking like one of the league’s best.
The Strong Start
After last season’s disastrous end where FCD missed the playoffs, head coach Oscar Pareja has some questions to answer: Why didn’t he play the kids? Why is this team not performing? Is the locker room culture toxic?
Dallas currently sits first in the Western Conference on 35 points, has defeated good teams and closed out games on the road. Man management is an important aspect of coaching, and Pareja has done it well. Training has been competitive as no player takes his spot in the gameday roster for granted. The depth seems to be there. However, it is approaching the time when Dallas began struggling last season, so fans should still be cautiously optimistic.
Pareja will have more challenges to face with Mauro Diaz being transferred this past week. With the big 3-2 win over Atlanta United on Wednesday, Pareja hopes to silence questions and quell the talk of last season, as stated in his post-game press conference.
“I don’t want to keep talking about last year,” Pareja said. “Last year is past. What we did two years ago, when we had title and trophies and 60 points back-to-back, that’s past too. This group of players just deserve to be focused on what they are doing game by game. Last year is over.”