Shifting to a three-man back line is the most visible difference between last year and this year for FC Dallas, yet another, more subtle change may have even greater long-term effects. A flank midfielder for most of his five-year pro career, Arturo Alvarez is playing up top for FC Dallas as a speedy, raiding foil for the burly Kenny Cooper and attacking midfielder Juan Toja.
FCD played a 0-0 tie at San Jose last Saturday, which left the 22-year-old with two goals and two assists in five games this season. More important than his personal stats are the team's record (2-1-3) and a better sense of self.
"I like it lot and I'm playing alongside good players like Kenny and Juan are really great players," says Alvarez, picked by San Jose out of Mayde Creek High School in Houston as a 17-year-old in the 2003 SuperDraft. "I'm looking forward to the rest of the season and so far I think we've started pretty good."
Last year, he garnered the most playing time of his career - 27 games (21 starts) - and despite several impressive performances, wound up with just three goals and three assists. He scored three more goals in the SuperLiga, including one against Guadalajara. During the offseason, Coach Steve Morrow contemplated moves he could make in the wake of striker Carlos Ruiz's trade to Los Angeles.
"I looked at the qualities that Arturo's got and I wanted to get him higher up the field and in more central areas and get him more freedom to roam around instead of being stuck out wide," said Morrow, who used Alvarez on both flanks after a trade brought him to Dallas in 2005. "He's got great pace which we've been able to use effectively in behind defenses, too."
He scored just such a goal against Houston April 6, racing onto a through ball from Pablo Ricchetti and rifling it past keeper Tony Caig in a 3-3 tie. Yet a week later, he stunned New York in the first minute by getting his head to an Andre Rocha cross and knocking it into the net for what proved to be the winning goal in a 2-0 win. He got another chance later in the match by darting behind the back line but keeper Jon Conway snuffed his shot.
He nearly scored last Saturday on a counterattack but after running onto a clearance and cutting inside Quakes captain Nick Garcia, nailed a left-footed shot over the crossbar. FC Dallas hung on to get its ninth point, which tied it with Colorado atop the Western Conference standings.
"It was a tough game and it's a good thing that we're leaving here with at least a point," said Alvarez, whose playing time dropped from 655 minutes in his rookie season to 374 in 2004. "This is where it all started for me. Time flies. It goes by so fast and now I'm here playing against them again. I'm just glad San Jose got a team again because I think the fans deserve it. I remember when I was here they were great.
"For a rookie, I got decent minutes. I was 17. Where it was a little disappointing was my second year, when I didn't see the field at all. I thought I was doing well and I was going to keep progressing. But that happens in soccer, you have your ups and downs. As long as you have to keep your head up and keep working hard, it pays off. I want to help my team win games."
In Dallas, a downturn in his second season repeated itself, as he made only six starts in 2006 compared to 15 the year before. His 21 starts last year were by far the most in his career and Morrow is expecting continued improvement from Alvarez, who turns 23 next month.
"Even when he came to Dallas, it took him at least a year  to really get settled," says Morrow. "Last year was when we started to see the best of Arturo. I think last year he knew he was at little bit of a crossroads and needed to step up and be more consistent and show everybody the talent that he's got. Everybody knew he had great ability and hadn't really showed it up until that point. He came a long way."
Alvarez, a former member of the U.S. under-20 team, trained with the under-23s prior to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in March but wasn't selected to the final squad by Coach Peter Nowak. Morrow says he and Nowak haven't talked about Alvarez recently but with Alvarez playing a different position, and preparations for the Olympic Games starting later this month, if the call is to come, it will come soon.
"It's a double-edged sword, really, because we don't want to lose him, either," says Morrow. "But I hope he gets back in the picture."