[MLS] Sometimes lost in the debate of why the Western Conference has been superior to the Eastern Conference the past few seasons is that, as a group, the Western teams have a better, deeper pool of attacking players. That balance has shifted with the sidelining of Seattle winger Steve Zakuani and FC Dallas playmaker David Ferreira due to fractures they suffered last week.
A late, wild tackle by Colorado’s Brian Mullan Friday flattened Zakuani and left him with a fractured tibia and fibula that may keep him out for the rest of the season. A crunching tackle by Vancouver defender Jonathan Leathers left Ferreira with a double fracture in his right ankle; his prognosis is not known.
How those teams compensate for the sudden losses of their most dynamic and effective players is crucial to their own playoff hopes, and also affects the balance between the conferences for wild-card spots should those teams not finish among the top three Western teams. Last year, they finished two points apart; FC Dallas was third in the conference with 50 points (tied for fourth on overall points) and Seattle ended up in fourth (sixth overall) with 48. This season, the top three in each conference qualify automatically and the next four teams based on points earn wild-card spots.
Zakuani’s injury does make Sigi Schmid’s job easier, theoretically, since it subtracts one offensive weapon from an array of attackers that is already overloaded. But nobody else on the Seattle roster, and very few players in MLS, are as dangerously left-sided as Zakuani, whose brazen dribbles and scything runs can circumvent, stretch, or pierce back lines.
He tied for the team lead in goals with Fredy Montero (10) last year and was leading the team this season in scoring with two goals and two assists. Midfielders Alvaro Fernandez and Erik Friberg have both played on the left, as well as the right, this season. Left unresolved is how Schmid can tweak the lineup to get both Montero and recent addition Mauro Rosales on the field together, or whether he must choose between them. Zakuani had been the one constant in a ever-changing formula with Fernandez out of form, Montero recovering from a wrist injury, and Nate Jaqua and O’Brian White vying for time at forward.
Other possibilities are second-year man Mike Fucito, who has yet to play this season, and Leo Gonzalez, who has played some left mid in the past while normally first-choice left back.
Ferreira’s injury is yet another change to FCD, which in the offseason jettisoned midfield linchpin Dax McCarty as well as attacker Atiba Harris and forward Jeff Cunningham. Playing as a second forward also tasked with playmaking duties, Ferreira won MVP honors with eight goals and 13 assists and led Dallas to MLS Cup, in which it lost to Colorado, 2-1, on an own goal in overtime.
He leads FCD this season with three goals and one assist and not yet known is if a lengthy absence would cause a switch in FCD’s formation. In the Vancouver game, Eric Avila replaced Ferreira in the 55th minute, forwards Fabian Castillo and Milton Rodriguez each played a half, and Eric Alexander replaced Marvin Chavez in the 71st minute.
Avila scored the winner 12 minutes later but it’s stretch to think he’s ready to replace Ferreira straightaway. Brazilian Ricardo Villar joined the team during the offseason and might get a chance to earn a spot though he’s only played 57 minutes in MLS.
“With the pressures of trying to be the same attacking-minded and explosive type team that we've been in the past, we know that a lot of pressure will be on David [Ferreira],” FCD coach Schellas Hyndman had said when Villar was signed in February. “Not only is David a good player, but now he's MVP and I think Villar coming in will be able to take some of that pressure off David.”
Without Ferreira, the pressure will be on someone else, as well as FCD.