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Nikolic's goal-scoring tops Audi Player Index

Five Aside
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 By Arch Bell

Return of Mauro Diaz, improved defense have FC Dallas trending up

Mauro Diaz's return from injury should be a major boost to an FC Dallas team that has been up and down.

You're not paying attention to the reigning Supporters' Shield winner and U.S. Open Cup champion. While much of the focus in MLS right now is on the high-flying Chicago Fire and Toronto FC, or the individual exploits of New York City FC's David Villa and Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron, there sits 2015 and 2016 darling FC Dallas, a team that has yet to separate itself from the rest of the Western Conference and seems to be lacking the same pizazz, panache and sizzle that you grew to love in recent seasons.

Maybe that's because you're overlooking what's going on in Big D. First, though, let's rewind.

It is important to remember what has happened to FC Dallas in the last 12 months. It was in July of last year when star playmaker Fabian Castillo suddenly decided he didn't want to be an FC Dallas player anymore, forcing a move to Trabzonspor in Turkey. Gone was the player who would bring defenses to their knees with his breathtaking speed and devastating movement on the left wing -- rabona assist, anyone?

A year later, FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja is still trying to solve the puzzle of filling Castillo's void.

"The team is still missing Fabian," Pareja told ESPN FC. "We had to reinvent our attack on the left wing. Fabian was so good at getting into the other half of the field in seconds. Roland Lamah, Ryan [Hollingshead], Paxton [Pomykal], [Jesus] Ferreira are all players we can use there, but the team is still adapting."

There was also the Achilles injury to Mauro Diaz just weeks before the start of the 2016 playoffs. Without their most important player pulling the strings in midfield, FC Dallas could not recalibrate and was out of the postseason by the first week of November. Diaz is now back, evidenced by a sparkling performance last week against D.C. United, and there is every confidence that by this fall the Argentine will be operating at full capacity.

"In the last three games, we've seen glimpses of the Mauro that plays at 100 percent," Pareja said. "Still, Mauro is in a process of recovering. He didn't have a preseason and has only been back five games. It's a tough task for him, but he's good enough to be on the field for us right now. We now want to see more of the Mauro that played against D.C. United with more frequency."

Hedges head injury vs NYCFC
FC Dallas' defense has been improved this season, largely due to the growth of U.S. call-up Matt Hedges.

Those are all important factors, and while midfielder Kellyn Acosta is enjoying the finest season of his career and forward Maxi Urruti has picked up the slack (11 goals) to offset the scoring slump of new arrival Cristian Colman, there is an improved facet of FC Dallas' game that could prove to be the key in finally breaking through and winning MLS Cup -- defense.

For all the plaudits earned and trophies won in the last two years, there was a tendency for the Texas club to flail defensively at the most inopportune of moments in its quest for a first MLS Cup title.

Go back to the 2015 Western Conference final. A 3-1 first-leg Portland Timbers win was a hurdle too high to clear in the return leg. The same happened in 2016. Come the postseason, a Diaz-less FC Dallas was hit for three goals in eight minutes by the Sounders in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals. Pareja's team never recovered and was sent packing.

He isn't saying it outright, but the feeling is that Pareja has learned his lesson from the events of the past two Novembers and is applying it to this year's team.

"In the last three of four years we would sometimes give up a lot of goals, so we are trying to become a better balanced team," Pareja said. "We need to be able to sustain a 1-0 scoreline, be solid defensively on the road so that we can get a positive result."

The numbers are encouraging. In 2015, FC Dallas allowed 39 regular-season goals. A year later, that total grew to 40. But 2017 has been a different story. After their first 17 games -- halfway through the schedule -- they had given up only 16 goals.

"I think we have improved defensively. We're better as a unit. My wish is that we become more mature, and I think we're getting there," Pareja said.

So while you may not be getting as many "wow" moments from FC Dallas as in years past, this infusion of pragmatism is setting the club up for what could be its most successful season ever.

Arch Bell covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .

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