FRISCO, Texas — In contrast to the young academy players FC Dallas typically garners attention for, veteran centerback Reto Ziegler has proved to be a key acquisition for the team this season.
Signed from Swiss side FC Luzern during the offseason, Ziegler, 32, was brought in to replace centerback Walker Zimmerman, who had been Matt Hedges’ defensive partner for five seasons before heading to LAFC.
The move marked the first time the Ziegler, a Swiss international, played outside of Europe, and that came with a bit of an adjustment period.
“It was a new challenge for me,” Ziegler told Pro Soccer USA. “It’s not easy when you come new into the country, you play against players you don’t really know. But right now, playing against them and watching them on TV, I know what I’m going to expect on the field. I feel really good and, like I said, we have a dominant team and I try my best to keep pushing and to bring the team as high as possible.”
FCD (14-6-7, 49 points) can’t go much higher at first place in the Western Conference.
One of the adjustments Ziegler made was to learn Spanish. FC Dallas has a very strong Latin influence, full of players from South America. Head coach Oscar Pareja often instructs players in Spanish and then English. It is a very bilingual group, but learning Spanish has made it easier for Ziegler to understand orders and connect with teammates.
“I speak really well Italian, and Spanish is similar,” Ziegler said. “I have actually no choice, I have to learn. For example, the coach Oscar, he speaks Spanish with me, and it’s a language I understood really well. It doesn’t matter for me, football is an international language and I feel good in the locker room, too.”
Another difficult adjustment for Ziegler was the extensive travel necessary in Major League Soccer due to the expansive territory of the United States and Canada. MLS teams also mostly fly commercial flights because of the league-wide limitations of charter flights. FC Dallas often saves charter flights for the playoffs, resulting in lots of waiting at the airport.
“I think the travel is something really hard for us,” Ziegler said. “It’s not easy. I was not used to travel like that. It’s hard for the body to sit many hours in the airport, on the plane. The club is doing the best for us. Sometimes we travel two days before the game. This is something new for me. I’m not 100 percent use to it, but I think that’s the most difficult thing in the league is the travel.”
Another thing is the physicality, which Ziegler knew all about before he arrived.
“I knew it was physical, but I have to say, it’s a real fight every game. It’s a big fight,” Ziegler said. “I didn’t have any simple game. I think the results we get was always with a lot of physical duels.”
Ziegler has been immense out of the back with his composure on the ball and his able to distribute. Often, Ziegler will attempt a pass that bypasses the midfield and will find the speedy Michael Barrios or Roland Lamah. The difference with him on the field versus when he’s off is noticeable and was highlighted in Dallas’ 4-3 loss to San Jose Aug. 29.
But staying on the field has been a challenge at times for Ziegler. He’s missed five matches, three due to red cards and another two for injuries. This season was his first in 16 professional years playing that he’s had more than one red card.
“They give me many cards and I never have so many cards in my life,” Ziegler said. “I’m not an especially aggressive player. It’s just the way I play. And I always respect everyone on the field. If they were be able to speak more with us and maybe understand our situation, it’ll be better for everybody.”
The ability to speak to a referee is a difference between European soccer and MLS that Ziegler highlighted.
“They are really closed,” Ziegler said of the officials. “And even if I don’t have the captain’s armband, I think I should be able — or my teammates should be able to — speak with them, and they are a bit closed. It should change. We are not here to give them a bad day. We are high-level professionals. In some situations, maybe in Europe, it’s easier to speak with the referees. Here, it’s closed. Hopefully, it will change in the future.”
All the adjustments haven’t prevented Ziegler from emerging as a leader for the club. He’s aided younger teammates, such as right back Reggie Cannon. Because of Ziegler’s play, Cannon can take more risks and build confidence during his first true MLS season.
“Reto is a leader on the team,” Cannon said. “His experience is well-known. He played with some of the best teams in the world and he’s bringing that veteran experience here. He’s helping the young guys gain confidence. He’s kinda getting that confidence on his shoulders that he needs, taking those free kicks, taking those penalties. He really helps the team a lot and he’s a solid and consistent player. And he really helps the young guys, like me, focus and have that confidence that he always has our back.”
Added Pareja: “Reto is bringing his experience and leadership, too, and his composure on the ball. I don’t have any doubt with the pedigree that he has. That’s contagious.”
With the regular season entering its final stages, Ziegler is eyeing the postseason. He knows there’s plenty of time left for other teams to make a run, and maintaining the first seed in the Western Conference is something Ziegler wants.
“I’m actually happy the way we play,” Ziegler said. “I think we can be proud because we are first in the Western Conference. So, actually, at the moment we are all happy, but the season is still long. We want to reach the playoff in the first position. I think that’s going to be a big advantage.”