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FC Dallas: The rise and fall of Kellyn Acosta

DALLAS — FC Dallas traded Kellyn Acosta to the Colorado Rapids on Monday. In return, FCD got forward Dominique Badji, the Rapids’ 2019 first-round pick, an international spot through 2019 and 50 percent of Acosta’s transfer fee should he be sold by 2020. The move ended what had been a frustrating season for Acosta in Dallas.

From being linked to Europe last summer, to falling out of favor in the midfield rotation and being shipped out of Dallas, here’s a look at the rise and fall of Acosta.

The Rise

Acosta gained notoriety as a young, talented midfielder early in his career. He proved his skill in Dallas’ first competitive match of the 2017 season: Against Panamanian side Arabe Unido in the Concacaf Champions League, Acosta bagged a brace to lead FCD to a 4-0 victory. 

At the time, Dallas was still without Mauro Diaz due to an Achilles injury, and Acosta picked up that offensive slack, showing the improvements he made during the offseason.

The real moment people began to believe Acosta, 22, may be on his way to Europe came during a match against Mexican side Pachuca in the following round of the CCL. Again, Acosta proved his worth offensively as a box-to-box midfielder and scored off a free kick — his third goal in three matches.

On social media, #YearOfKellyn began to pick up steam. People took notice of the Plano, Texas, native.

Acosta continued to score and get minutes in the starting XI, pairing with Carlos Gruezo to create a strong midfield. Gruezo destroyed oncoming attacks and Acosta carried the ball up the pitch, searching for options. It worked well, and Dallas remained a strong team in the Western Conference.

 

Outside of league play, Acosta thrived as well. On July 1, 2017, he scored off a free kick for the United States men’s national team against Ghana in a 2-1 friendly win. And his shining moment during 2017 was for his country in front of a hostile environment at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where the U.S. came away with a 1-1 draw against Mexico in a 2018 World Cup Qualifier match. Acosta was lauded for his performance alongside Michael Bradley, almost enhancing the veteran defensive midfielder by limiting his responsibilities. Acosta cemented himself in on the national stage with that game.

He continued to get national team minutes under former U.S. coach Bruce Arena. Many loved Acosta’s style of play: energetic and tireless amid a typically older, slower U.S. midfield. It was almost as if Acosta was unlocking Bradley, the almost perfect partner, contrary to what the national team had seen previously with Jermaine Jones.

Acosta played in five matches at the 2017 Gold Cup, including a 1-0 final victory against Jamaica. The tournament was not the best showing for Acosta, but it displayed the trust Arena had in him. 

July 26, 2017; Santa Clara, CA, USA; United States midfielder Kellyn Acosta (23) hoists the trophy after the finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup against Jamaica at Levi’s Stadium. The United States defeated Jamaica 2-1. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Soon after, FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo said he predicted Acosta leaving for Europe in 12 months. Acosta also talked openly about a move to Europe this summer.

But Acosta didn’t move.

FC Dallas president Dan Hunt told reporters the team had received ‘no offers’ for Acosta and the club would not look to transfer him until the offseason.

The Fall

Instead, FC Dallas collapsed. After a momentous 2016 season, the team failed to return to the playoffs, going 2-7-6 in its last 15 matches of 2017.

Acosta also was on the field when the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The team fell 2-1 to a poor Trinidad and Tobago side, ending the dream of making an impression on the world’s biggest stage.

The 2018 MLS season came along and it was supposed to be better for FC Dallas, especially for Acosta. The team did not let Acosta go to the USMNT’s January camp, instead wanting him to train with the club before the 2018 edition of the CCL. It was the first full preseason Acosta had with FC Dallas, and he supported the decision.

“I thought it was truly beneficial for me to start the year off right so I can continue to be healthy, strong and have a long successful year,” Acosta told MLSsoccer.com prior to FC Dallas’ first CCL match against Chattanooga FC.

Two weeks later, Dallas announced Acosta would undergo hernia surgery and miss six to eight weeks. The injury was devastating for Acosta.

Jul 26, 2017; Santa Clara, CA, USA; United States midfielder Kellyn Acosta (23) against Jamaica during the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The team struggled to find a replacement for his role, but soon saw the emergence of Jacori Hayes, a second-year player out of Wake Forest. Hayes was arguably one of the best players Dallas had at the start of the year. He often paired with Gruezo, a designated player with World Cup experience, and pushed up the field.

When Acosta recovered, most expected he’d get his spot back either alongside Hayes or Gruezo. He talked about watching the games on the sideline and the unique perspective he received doing so for the first time in his career.

“I think sometimes you learn more from watching and being in the stands, watching the game you get an obviously different perspective than just seeing it on film,” Acosta said. “I can see it live, I can see the movements and positioning so I’m retaining a lot of information in that sense. I’m on the outside looking in. I’m looking at a fan perspective. But obviously, I know my teammates better than anyone else. It’s definitely a different experience in that sense because I’m usually on the field somewhat even in the field or on the bench.” 

Hayes was benched after a 3-1 defeat against NYCFC April 29 and a partnership between Gruezo and Victor Ulloa formed. Acosta would either come on late or be pulled early in his first three matches back, as he continued working on his fitness. He then played 73 minutes twice, 89 and 90 minutes in the next four matches, leading to a June 23 game against the New York Red Bulls.

During the Red Bulls match, a 3-0 defeat, Tyler Adams beat Acosta to a ball, sprinted right by him with ease and found Bradley Wright-Phillips to open up the scoring for RBNY.

Then in the 27th minute, Daniel Royer was sent off for an almost ankle-breaking challenge on Hayes. So, Pareja elected to change tactics up a man, wanting to attack more. The board came up in the 32nd minute: Acosta out, Michael Barrios in.

Acosta walked off the pitch, refusing to shake Barrios’ hand, and headed straight to the locker room. It was the first sign of a frustrating season.

Acosta apologized for his actions following the game, but his playing time was limited ever since. Aside from a 90-minute appearance in Dallas’ 2-0 loss against Real Salt Lake on July 7, Acosta played no more than 33 minutes in a match.

At that point, it also was clear in training that Acosta was behind Ulloa and Gruezo on the depth chart. He played with the backups and stayed after practice for the reserve games, trying to work his way back into head coach Oscar Pareja’s favor. But Pareja continued to play Ulloa and Gruezo.

Ulloa is now on the verge of equaling the number of starts he had last season and has clearly gained Pareja’s trust as a calming presence in the midfield. 

There was hope things would change for the better for Acosta, especially after his goal against Chicago July 14.

“I feel all right,” Acosta said after the Chicago match. “It has been a difficult season, but I am happy to get on the scoresheet.”

But his frustration continued to grow and become more evident. He began skirting interviews post-training, after being open and warm at the beginning of the season.

Most recently, Acosta played 15 minutes against Houston in Saturday’s 1-1 draw — the night before the trade news was reported by the Dallas Morning News.

Acosta to Colorado in exchange for Badji and assets: A move that muttered one year ago would’ve been met with laughter and dismissal.

The Result

Acosta is synonymous with FC Dallas. Fans identify him with the club. He was the homegrown poster child of how it was supposed to be done: Play in the academy, play with FC Dallas, get to the national team and then make a mark in Europe.

He also was important to many of his teammates.

Hayes told Pro Soccer USA earlier this year that Acosta FaceTimed him immediately after Hayes was drafted by Dallas to congratulate and welcome him to the team. Acosta, Hayes, and defender Kris Reaves all lived together this year, and when Acosta was injured, he helped Hayes during his run as the starter. 

One FCD player told Pro Soccer USA he was surprised by the move, questioning if it was true after reports surfaced.

The midfield competition is shored up for Dallas. It’s clear the team favors Ulloa and Gruezo at the moment. Hayes is now the clear third option and part of the future, alongside Brandon Servania, who was signed to a homegrown deal last season. Servania is considered a No. 8 by Pareja and was being groomed to be the future successor for Acosta.

With trust in its midfield rotation, Dallas felt comfortable dealing Acosta for a pacy forward and assets that can be flipped for more in the future — plus a percentage of any future Acosta transfer fee.

For Colorado, the team hopes to motivate Acosta to find his form from early 2017. It’s a low-risk, high-reward move that can elevate the club and maybe even spark a turnaround.

Most importantly, for Acosta, it represents a new start.

He is for sure to get playing time with the Rapids and be a prized possession for the team, like he once was with Dallas. Maybe there he can play his way back into form and regain that spark that’s been missing lately, the spark that got him European interest, USMNT call-ups and #YearOfKellyn.

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