FC Dallas is adding to the tasks of Kellyn Acosta in Diaz's absence

By Ridge Mahoney

Six months into life without midfield maestro Mauro Diaz, FC Dallas is decidedly less elegant yet still undefeated.

When Diaz suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon near the end of the 2016 regular season, FCD’s title chances essentially went out the window and not many observers looked beyond that stark forecast. Yet FCD needed to plan long-term on how to cope without Diaz for many more months and perhaps for an entire season should injury recurrences and other setbacks delay his recovery.

Former RSL stalwart Javier Morales, signed during the offseason to augment the FCD midfield, has supplied a few magical moments off the bench and as a spot starter. But mostly FCD 2017 has relied on two forwards -- Max Urruti and newcomer Cristian Colman -- instead of one, rigorous two-way efforts from central mids Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo, increased flank presence supplied by Michael Barrios, Roland Lamah and Tesho Akindele, and a resilient defense to churn through the first six games undefeated.

Just three teams have scored fewer goals than the eight tallied by FCD, yet only Sporting Kansas City, which conceded its third goal of the season in a 1-0 loss at Toyota Stadium last Saturday, has allowed so few. Defensively, FCD is more mature than last year, when it conceded just 40 goals -- only three teams allowed fewer -- and not so much more conservative offensively as more straightforward.

“We have a high tempo,” said head coach Oscar Pareja earlier this month after a 1-1 tie at San Jose in which Acosta scored after Morales came in as a sub. “I think our team is fast. We don’t possess the ball much and now that Javi came to our team, we tried to put some sequences, but without Mauro here also, the system forces us to play more vertical and we welcome that idea as well.”

A week earlier, Morales had started and scored the first goal of a 2-0 defeat of Minnesota United, with Barrios assisting on his goal and scoring the second himself. Granted, that was a home game against an expansion team, but in San Jose, FCD held out until the last few seconds before conceding, and back home last weekend against SKC, pitched another shutout while controlling just 39.5 percent of possession yet landing six of 11 shots on goal.

“That was an area we’ve been lacking, just keeping possession,” says Acosta. “I think we’re almost too direct sometimes, but we’re working on it and we’re getting results.”

After scoring in the 78th minute against San Jose, FCD patiently plugged away last weekend against SKC. Shortly after coming on as a sub, Barrios got loose down the right wing and swung a ball to the back post that left back Maynor Figueroa, whose first and only MLS goal had been scored nearly two years ago, headed powerfully into the net.

“We’re creating a lot of chances and this has been happening the last three or four games, which makes me feel good,” Pareja had said after the game in San Jose. “We’re creating it and the team is playing well. We’re not finding that resolution, we’re not finishing. Obviously, that’s always a concern, ‘cause that’s what gets you the points. But I have to be patient.

“It could be a moment where the goal will be open for us, the ball will bounce on our side, and the boys will find the net. But they created a lot of options and I have to give them the credit.”

The option that is Diaz will arise soon enough. Now that Diaz has resumed full-out sprinting, speculation has intensified as to when he may be back on the field, with projections of July/August often cited. While it’s true that Acosta has taken on more of the playmaking burden with Diaz out of action, it’s also true that some of their duties, such as taking set plays, had been shared when both were on the field.

“Even when Mauro was in, me and him kind of took turns, depending on how he’s feeling,” said Acosta. “Set pieces were part of the game I’ve done since the Academy. I’ve always hit free kicks, corner kicks, all of that. I’m happy to have the opportunity from Oscar to continue on that.”

His booming free kick in the Concacaf Champions League and a nice finish to score the winner to defeat the Galaxy in the season opener indicate this facet of his game may be blossoming. The absence of Diaz is another phase in his development as a pro player that started nearly five years ago when he signed a Homegrown contract.

Mastering the professional game, for players and coaches and executives, is a constant process of adjustment. For Acosta, last season he had to form a partnership with Gruezo after playing much of the time with fellow academy product Victor Ulloa in 2015, and this year has been adjusting to life without Diaz, which also has required learning the nuances of supporting two forwards rather than a lone frontrunner as well as sharing central midfield duties.

Of Gruezo, who at 22 is actually a year younger than Acosta but has two 2014 World Cup appearances for Ecuador included in his 17 caps, he says, “It took me a little bit to kind of adapt to how he plays. He’s a guy that when he pressures, he pressures to win the ball, and I think we’ve definitely adapted to each other. I see him as a guy that sits more and I have more space to roam around.”

As Diaz comes back into the fold, it will be up to head coach Oscar Pareja to fuse his team’s altered identity with the more flowing game generated when Diaz’s skills, vision, and guile are directing the attack. The coach will also have to decide if he sacrifices a forward to accommodate Diaz, or alters the midfield shape to make room for him.

“With Mauro Diaz in there it’s a little bit different, I kind of help him find his space and get out of the way and let him do his thing,” Acosta said with a laugh. “Now when we play in our 4-4-2 it’s more of an opportunity for me to get forward and find those pockets and help my forwards and also for me to get into spots where I can score some goals as well.”

To score against San Jose, Acosta ghosted behind a dribbling run by Urruti and pounced when a sliding tackle by Darwin Ceren pushed the ball into his path. He hit it past Quakes keeper David Bingham for his second goal of the season and seventh of his career.

“The beginning of the year’s been great for me,” said Acosta, a 2012 Homegrown signing who set career highs in appearances (32), starts (24) and assists (5) last year and has started five of six games in 2017. “I’m inching closer to being better and better and I’m really focused on capitalizing on the chances I have in front of goal. I think I’ve been pretty clinical but I can improve a lot on the field.”

Regardless of how quickly Diaz recovers, Pareja will be pushing his players to improve their cohesion and understanding of how to play without him. By recording 60 points in back-to-back regular seasons, FC Dallas defied critics who believed its system could be scouted and stymied, but toppling in the playoffs to surging Seattle rekindled suspicions Pareja’s players leaned too heavily on their playmaker.

There are many more games to play before a fit Diaz presents a new issue for the head coach, who is now also leading the league’s only unbeaten team, having dispatched SKC from the perch they had shared. For Pareja, who is refining the partnership of Urruti and Colman and juggling goalkeepers Jesse Gonzalez and Chris Seitz and monitoring the progress of younger players like Acosta while also generating results, he won’t be distracted by the recovery of an injured star nor the unbeaten bulls-eye on his team’s back.

“For me it would be easier to bring mature players and pay a lot of money for them and maybe the process would be quicker, the frustration would be less, but I do really enjoy seeing the boys growing,” says Pareja, who helped start up the team’s academy program and was its director before taking on the job of head coach with Colorado in 2012.
“I see the process growing with me, I’m growing as well for them. I’m still a young coach [48] and was given an opportunity, and I see it the same way for the players.
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