Short-handed FC Dallas defense needs to keep pace with high-flying attack
It's true in sports that championships are often won by great defenses. But after the spectacle of the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday, perhaps that isn't particularly fashionable this week.
For those who turned back to MLS on Saturday night -- after Real Madrid dismantled Juventus' previously impregnable defense 4-1 earlier in the day -- the sight of FC Dallas putting six goals past hapless Real Salt Lake, including five in the first half, seemed to suggest that the recent drop in form experienced by the Texas club was just a blip and that normal service would now be resumed.
Certainly, there's plenty for Dallas to put in the plus column after Saturday's game. Roland Lamah, previously holder of the unimpressive stat of one goal in his first 11 starts for the team, scored a hat trick in 23 first-half minutes. That moved him into second on the team's goal-scoring chart behind Maxi Urruti, who also scored on the night.
There was also the perfect introduction for 16-year-old debutant Jesus Ferreira, son of Dallas legend David Ferreira. Jesus got to enter a rout and even join in with a sweetly taken 89th-minute goal. Add in a goal from Tesho Akindele, who has been perennially promising for as long as most neutrals can remember, and it looked like a perfect offensive night for Dallas.
Oscar Pareja's team certainly needed one. Lamah's underwhelming form of late had become a worry, as had the disappointing returns so far from a fellow preseason signing, Paraguay international Christian Colman. Colman had been envisioned as the spiritual heir to Blas Perez, the last Dallas player to hit double-digit goals in a single season, back in 2014. But until Saturday, Colman and Lamah looked like expensive flops, and Colman was dropped to the bench at the weekend.
Taken together, it would be easy to conclude that all you need to know about Dallas' championship credentials is contained in the image of the club's fearless, free-flowing attackers overwhelming opponents.
But it might be a little hasty to say that Dallas is back. The team has plenty of short-term issues and potential pitfalls to deal with in the coming weeks, and that should bring the focus squarely back to the defense.
Let's remember that the Real Salt Lake game was an outlier -- this was not so much the performance Dallas has been threatening to produce for weeks as the one RSL has been threatening to produce for weeks, as their new-coach bounce with the hiring of Mike Petke has turned into a tailspin. RSL is in crisis and Petke is no longer trying to protect the players from the fallout. Dallas played RSL at a perfect time and still conceded two goals in the second half.
And if we're going to give credit for the goals Dallas scored, we have to acknowledge the goals they've given up as well, and note that there's every possibility that more could be conceded.
In particular, there's a fair argument that as brilliant as Mauro Diaz is in adding improvisational flair and vision to the Dallas attack, the net gain to the team by his return from injury was more than offset by the loss of Walker Zimmerman to injury for 4-6 weeks. Coupled with Matt Hedges being away on U.S. national team duty, Dallas lost its first-choice center-back pairing. Maynor Figueroa could normally move inside at a pinch, but he too is on the road with Honduras, and with the influential Kellyn Acosta also away on U.S. duty, the defensive midfield screening in front of that back line is looking a little shaky too.
The game on the road against Portland this weekend could be as chastening as the RSL game was inspiring. And with road games in Vancouver and Houston to follow, and an East-West home summit with Toronto after that, Pareja will be praying his defensive-minded players are looked after by their national teams.
And then there's the looming Gold Cup; national team rosters that tend to skew young will be more likely to plunder Dallas' resources again. And lost in the past week's speculation over whether Jesse Gonzalez would choose to represent the U.S. or Mexico has been the possibility that one of the best young goalkeepers in MLS could be absent from his team in July, just as they're struggling to lift themselves from a mini-slump while fielding a weakened defense.
Dallas is not the only team creaking at the back and paying the price. Anyone watching Toronto FC being unexpectedly dismantled by New England at the weekend might point to the absence of Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley as a big factor, but the Toronto defense's loss of the much less celebrated Nick Hagglund is just as significant in its way. The New York Red Bulls need their midfield to get Bradley Wright-Phillips the ball near goal more often, but it's arguably more important that they get Aurelien Collin back from injury to steady the defense.
Look at the chatter around most of those teams and it'll be about the virtues or shortcomings of their offense, but it's no coincidence that Dallas' development from exciting-but-lightweight into trophy winners last year was contingent on the emergence of a formidable defensive base to go with its flowing attack.
That base needs to hold right now if the goals at the other end are to matter and, more importantly, help them win trophies.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.