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Friday, March 18, 2011
FC Dallas 2011 Preview

By Todd Date

Well, it’s finally here, the start of the 2011 MLS regular season. And for FC Dallas fans, that means it’s time for renewed optimism surrounding their beloved club, the reigning Western Conference champions. Of course, much of the cast is back for more, including reigning league MVP David Ferreira along with solid veteran goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, up-and-coming midfielder and sometimes center back Brek Shea and Honduran speedster Marvin Chavez.

But there were some notable departures from last year’s league runner-up. At forward, Jeff Cunningham and his 11 goals will be missed but the veteran scorer did most of his damage off the bench in 2010. Still, it would’ve been nice to see No. 9 become the league’s all-time leading goal scorer in an FCD shirt but what’s done is done.

And in the midfield, there is a pair of departures with linking mid Dax McCarty, who is the new captain for DC United, being the biggest loss. But seeing right mid Atiba Harris was another notable loss but Chavez is clearly an upgrade in several ways. About the only other personnel change of note that hasn’t been mentioned was at right back where Heath Pearce was shipped off to Chivas USA earlier in preseason. Pearce never really was on the bus that FCD gaffer Schellas Hyndman so eloquently speaks of, so he was traded. Now, versatile Brazilian Jackson is the new right back.

And there are some new faces, including a new backup goalkeeper in Chris Seitz, Brazilian midfielder Ricardo Villar, who could be McCarty’s long-term replacement in the middle and young forward Fabian Castillo, a Colombian striker who heads to MLS after a solid early career in South America. But the big question on everyone’s mind is, will FCD finish the job and win MLS Cup in 2011? That one won’t be decided for several months but with a solid returning cast, this club remains one of the top contenders in the West and the league for that matter. So, a title is definitely within the realm of possibility.

GOALKEEPER

Hartman was an absolute rock between the posts last year before that unfortunate collision with New York’s Thierry Henry last September at Pizza Hut Park resulted in a knee injury that shelved him for much of the rest of the regular season. To his credit, the veteran goalkeeper returned and was his former self in the playoffs.

Before his injury, Big Kev was one of the top candidates for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year but missing so many games basically took him out of the running. Still, he brings a calming influence to the FCD back four and one shouldn’t discount the positive effect his addition had on making this side a much tougher club to score against in 2010.

If Hartman can remain healthy in 2011 and shows similar form to what he did one year ago, then there isn’t any reason to think he won’t contend for and possibly win the league’s top ‘keeper award for a third time in his storied career. And now that FCD has a viable backup in Seitz, giving Kevin a rest when he needs it isn’t a bad thing.

Nothing against last year’s backup Dario Sala but it was clear that the Argentine ‘keeper just didn’t have the range of movement he once did and when Sala was pressed into duty during Hartman’s absence, it quickly became clear that the club needed an upgrade at backup keeper. They got that in acquiring Seitz from the Union for basically nothing.

The ex-Maryland Terrapin also figures to get his share of playing time as FCD will also play in the CONCACAF Champions League, US Open Cup and possibly SuperLiga this year in addition to whatever international friendlies the club books throughout the season. So, with a one-two punch of Hartman and Seitz, the FCD goalkeeping corps is again a big strength.

Josh Lambo is still on the roster mostly due to his Generation adidas status and is the third ‘keeper. He could go out on loan again like he did in 2010 to get more seasoning. And the club also has Home Grown ‘keeper Richard Sanchez, who is only 16 but could represent the future between the posts for this club.

DEFENSE

Even though he will miss FCD’s season opener on Saturday against Chicago because of a preseason spitting incident against Houston, Jair Benitez is entrenched at left back. He is somewhat of a polarizing player. While some see him as an absolute rock who is one of the best players in the back, others get nervous by his occasional lack of poise like the red card he got last year at Houston, which also netted him a suspension and which was also seen earlier this year against the Dynamo in preseason.

Maybe the Colombian defender just hates Houston, which should further endear him to FCD supporters but Benitez’s decision making at times has to be called into question. Still, he remains the best option on the left side. Zach Loyd will fill in for him against the Fire but he is much better in a more central role. That means Hyndman will go with Benitez until someone else better steps up, which appears unlikely.

In the middle, it is something of a mixed bag. The rangy George John has recovered from his off-season surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle and after missing the early stages of preseason, has shown he is back to his old self. That’s definitely a good thing for FCD.

However, his usual center back partner, Ugo Ihemelu, won’t be ready for the season opener after having surgery to repair a sports hernia earlier in preseason. Brek Shea will shift over from his usual spot at left mid to fill in and yes, the big Texas native does present some intriguing possibilities at center back.

Most notably, Shea’s size and toughness could make him a good central defender in the future but it will take him some time to get used to the intricacies of being a great center back. The ideal scenario sees Ihemelu return to full health, reclaim his old spot, which would send Shea back to the left flank, where he can realistically still help this team the most but watching him in the back will be intriguing to say the least.

With the departure of Pearce, Jackson is the new starter at right back. The versatile Brazilian played in a number of spots last year and has nice pace along with a solid soccer IQ. He should be a solid replacement for Heath and fits the vision of a Hyndman fullback as a guy who can handle his defensive responsibilities yet still get up and down the flanks to provide doses of offense when possible. A goal or two along with several assists isn’t too much to ask from him in 2011.

Along with Loyd, 2011 draftee Bobby Warshaw gives FCD considerable cover at center back. Once Kyle Davies returns from ankle surgery, which won’t be for at least two more months, he too could provide some cover in the back for Hyndman. Forward Andrew Wiedeman has also been seeing a lot of action at right back but would only be pressed into duty with the first team unless an absolute emergency arose. Still, he could see some time there in reserve games or any of the other competitions FCD is in this year. Homegrown talent Moises Hernandez could also get a look as the season progresses.

MIDFIELD

Of course, Ferreira leads the way as the reigning MVP and the man who makes this entire attack go. In 2010, “El Torito” was the most fouled player in MLS and that total could grow even further in 2011 as he is now even more of a marked man as the reigning MVP. So, the obvious question with the Colombian dynamo is can he take a similar beating in 2011?

Hyndman and FCD fans alike both hope so because in 2010, he was the soccer equivalent of a Timex watch who could take a licking and keep on ticking. It’s an obvious statement but so goes No. 10 and so goes the club. The gaffer expects clubs to focus more on containing Ferreira, which will result in him coming up with some solid countermeasures to combat bottling up FCD’s central attacking midfielder. Since there’s little reason to question his in-game adjustments at this point, there’s no doubt Hyndman will come up with something good.

Still, should the opposition be successful in taking Ferreira out of the game, that makes FCD’s flank midfielders of Shea on the left and Chavez on the right even more crucial. Both are capable of delivering pinpoint service and each starter has enough speed to stretch opposing defenses on the flanks and to draw their focus, leaving the forward(s) open up top.

Eric Avila will likely start the season opener in Shea’s place and this is clearly a huge opportunity for the amicable California native. If he doesn’t show well for himself in his latest big chance to show he belongs in the first 11, he might not get another shot. Avila has good speed, a nice touch on the ball but up until now, he has shown that he’s best suited as an instant energy guy off the bench instead of as a starter.

As for Chavez, he battled through an injury-marred early part of 2010 to become a starter on the right side late in the year and it was clear, FCD was a better team with him on the field last fall. Now with a new contract in hand and his health no longer an issue, the pressure is high for the Honduran speedster to perform. Can he deliver over a full season?

Moving inside, holding mid and captain Daniel Hernandez has recovered from off-season knee surgery but his advancing age and health concerns from 2010 still could loom large later in the year. Recent acquisition Andrew Jacobson, another Philly expatriate, looks like a solid backup option for Hernandez at that spot along with ex-SMU standout Bruno Guarda, who is facing a make or break year with FCD.

But at McCarty’s old spot, linking mid, there are some questions. It’s hard to fault FCD’s rationale for letting Dax go, especially since Eric Alexander performed so well as a fill-in while McCarty missed considerable time with a hamstring injury last summer. And even though Alexander might not have performed as well as some would have expected this preseason, he remains the answer there until proven otherwise.

But if the ex-Hoosier does take a step back in year two, there are other possibilities. Newcomer Villar has shown pretty well for himself since arriving early in preseason but health has been an issue for the Brazilian midfielder. So, that could leave Guarda as another possibility. He also hasn’t done much in preseason but maybe he feels this is his last shot to stick with FCD and if given a chance, might decide to make the most of his opportunity. Fans saw it just a few years back at SMU but that Bruno Guarda seems like a completely different player compared to what he’s been in his first few years in MLS.

There are also two Home Grown players to mention here. Of course, the first is Bryan Leyva, who made his first-team debut last year but has struggled to adjust to being a professional, namely when it comes to his fitness. If Leyva can become fit, then he could also get a look. Big Victor Ulloa, also a product of the FCD youth system, is another possibility for the future but he also needs some seasoning.

FORWARD

This could be the biggest question mark for FCD in 2011. Cunningham is gone but it looks like fellow veteran Milton Rodriguez, who had five goals in 13 games, looks to be the starter at least for the near future in Hyndman’s 4-1-4-1. Rodriguez joined FCD last July and considering the substantial hype his signing got before the fact, the results were somewhat disappointing. What can he do with a larger sample size? Hopefully score more goals and maybe provide more assists, at least that’s the hope.

But the minutes Milton receives could depend on if and when Hyndman and his staff feel 19-year-old phenom Ruben Luna is ready. The Home Grown player is clearly FCD’s striker of the future and like Leyva, made his first-team debut last year. He is an exciting, young player who has good speed and a clinical approach around the net that has the FCD faithful salivating at the mere possibilities surrounding this local product starting up top. But when will he be ready?

FCD also has Peri Marosevic at striker but in his first two years, the ex-Michigan Wolverine hasn’t shown a ton and has yet to see any action with the first team. Wiedeman is in his second year and as previously mentioned, has seen most of his recent action at right back. Home Grown talent Jonathan Top is another possibility but like the rest of the FCD youth system products, he figures to need additional experience, which could come in reserve games and friendlies, before he’s ready for his big chance.

However, the wild card in this equation is 18-year-old Colombian Castillo. He has yet to join FCD and there’s no telling when that might happen since the club is waiting for him to get his visa. And once he does join the team, there is the whole question of how fit he will be once he arrives and how long it will take for him to be comfortable enough with his new teammates and in Hyndman’s 4-1-4-1 to make his MLS debut? Honestly, it could be a month or more before FCD fans get their first look at Castillo but once Hyndman feels he’s ready, he will be out there. The only question might be if the gaffer decides to switch to a 4-4-2 formation, possibly with a young duo of Luna and Castillo up top or if he decides to stick with the one-striker setup that served FCD so well in 2010?