There's something bizarre happening in Dallas. By replacing a Finn, an Irishman and an American with a Colombian and an Argentine, among other changes, Coach Steve Morrow has already transformed the identity of his team.
Effective yet predictable is out, stylish and unorthodox is in.
"I want us to play more one-touch and interchange positions, so the defense isn't sure of what we're going to do," says Morrow, who was Colin Clarke's assistant for two years before being named to replace him. "I think we were too predictable at times last year and teams were able to figure us out. We want to make it a lot harder for them to do that."
Elimination in the first round of the playoffs by lower-seeded Colorado the past two seasons prompted general manager Michael Hitchcock to make several changes. Also traded away was veteran defender Greg Vanney, yet the core of the team that posted a 29-22-13 record during the past two regular seasons is mostly intact.
Morrow, though, wants a different approach, both on the field and in the mind. He unveiled a 4-2-3-1 formation during preseason designed to alter tone as well as tactics.
"I wouldn't mind seeing us play with a bit more flair," says Morrow, a rugged defender for Arsenal in his playing days. "I want us to be solid at the back as well but in the attack I want us to be able to move the ball."
Ramon Nunez logged six goals and four assists last season but objected to being substituted by Clarke, who benched him and moved Kenny Cooper to the left side of midfield. Morrow has moved Nunez into the middle, supported by a pair of central midfielders, with Juan Carlos Toja, a Colombian, and Pablo Richettiof Argentina as the new elements.
FC Dallas retains perhaps the most potent set of forwards in MLS.
Carlos Ruiz scored 13 goals and Cooper netted 11 in his debut season. Roberto Mina, who recently signed a new contract, netted just three in a season marred by injuries, yet during the 2005 season scored seven goals in 21 games and might be the right winger if the 4-2-3-1 is retained.
Knee problems will sideline defender/midfielder Adrian Serioux for at least the first half of the season, and an injury to left back Chris Gbandi further clouds the defensive situation. Gbandi had his best season in 2006, at least until a red card forced Dallas to play with 10 men for 90 minutes in Game 2 of the conference semifinals. He will miss the start of the season.
Morrow has given former U.S. U-23 defender Alex Yi a chance to win a starting spot, perhaps from either Clarence Goodson and Drew Moor. Right back Bobby Rhine, a converted midfielder, has the most experience on the back line.
But regardless of alignment or personnel shifts or trying to spice up his attack, Morrow has also tried to address a serious flaw he detected as an assistant.
"We've tried to build some team spirit and team unity and emphasize teamwork is important as we go forward," says Morrow of his preseason preaching. "Perhaps we can get that little bit of togetherness I felt we didn't have last year."