You could feel it around practice all week; sense it in the Portland Timbers’ voices when they came off the field. With two weeks to stew in the team’s 0-2-0 start, players have been itching to get back on the field - ready to get stuck in to with someone other than themselves.
Unfortunately, the Timbers’ return to competitive action (12:30pm PT, UniMás, Univision Deportes and Twitter) coincides with a visit to one of the most talented teams in MLS – a team which, thanks to Oscar Pareja, has the identity and balance you would normally associate with a title contender.
Whether Dallas is truly a contender this year, we break down in another piece. Regardless, Portland has to prepare as if it is facing one of the most capable teams in MLS, with Dallas’ strengths ready to test the team’s struggling back four.
Here is your KeyBank Scouting Report – three things to watch for with FC Dallas.
1. The Urruti-Barrios-Diaz problem
If there’s one thing that should breed nightmares in every Dallas opponent, it’s how the team can break down the left side of your defense.
With right wing Michael Barrios, Dallas has one of the fastest attackers in the league, somebody who can kill you both on the counter and by simply chasing down balls played over your left back (as FCD did to the Timbers in preseason). That threat is only magnified by the presence of Maxi Urruti, one of the hardest-working forwards in the league, who prevents teams’ center backs from cheating to help.
Add in the skills of Mauro Diaz, an attacking midfielder who plays the best through balls in MLS, and Dallas has a straight-forward, simple formula that’s occasionally impossible to stop.
Last year, the trio combined for 15 goals and 27 assists, a diminished return considering Diaz’s early-season recovery from a torn Achilles tendon. In 2016, Urruti’s first in Dallas, the triad combined for 23 goals and 19 assists, helping Pareja’s team claimed both the U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield.
Together, the trio is capable of turning any left back-center back partnership inside out, but the benefits of their play extend beyond Dallas’ right flank. Patrolling the far post last season, winger Roland Lamah scored 11 times in his MLS debut, and inserted into the lineup for Santiago Mosquera last weekend, the Ivorian buried two more.
“They have an identity. They are very direct. They have players that work very hard, that they’re very mobile, and they have speed,” Giovanni Savarese said, this week, when asked about Dallas’ threat going forward. “They are very good on the counters, and they’re clinical on the finishing.”
This is not an attack you want to face when things are at their best, let alone when you just gave up four goals, your fullbacks have struggled, and your central defense is having problems. Yet in every challenge lies an opportunity, and with the Timbers having two weeks to prepare for Dallas, the defense should have a plan to offset its Urruti-Barrios-Diaz problem.
2. Dancing around the double pivot
Over the season’s first two games, Portland has been unable to get Diego Valeri involved, something we discussed in the wake of the New York loss. Unfortunately for the reigning league MVP, things are unlikely to get any easier this weekend, with Dallas’ two deep midfielders every bit as capable of containing the Timbers’ maestro.
The key man in Dallas’ pivot is Carlos Gruezo, a 22-year-old Ecuadorian international who brought two years of Bundesliga experience with him when he joined FC Dallas before the 2016 season. Since, he’s been Dallas’ leading tackler in the middle while still completing 85.7 percent of his passes last season. He’s a no-mistake, ever-present stalwart the Timbers will have to work around.
Beside him would normally be Kellyn Acosta, but in the U.S. international’s injury absence, second-year midfielder Jacori Hayes has been given a chance to shine. Prized when he fell to Dallas in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, the Wake Forest product didn’t make a huge impact in his rookie season, but in the two starts he’s had this season, Hayes has shown excellent quality on the ball, completing 92.7 percent of his passes while setting up two shots per game.
Together, Gruezo and Hayes will be the most formidable deep midfield Portland’s seen this season. And if the Timbers plan on pressing high, again, Gruezo, Hayes and Diaz are all capable of exploiting space in the middle.
3. Gio versus Oscar
Oscar Pareja is one of the first coaches Giovanni Savarese mentions when he talks about his new MLS peers. Given their similarities, it’s easy to see why. Both are South American born, played in MLS’ early days, and walked paths into coaching that focused on youth development.
“We used to compete [against each other, as coaches,] in the Development Academy,” Savarese noted, this week. “Seeing his style of play at that time, the way we want to play, I think we believe in a lot of the same things. Seeing the success that he has had in MLS is not a coincidence.”
There’s two decades of history, here, that will inform Saturday’s tactical battle. That matchup won’t only be about containing Mauro Diaz or trying to keep Diego Valeri off the ball. Like any good chess match, decisions will be made while looking three, four moves out. And those decisions will be informed by the respect Pareja and Savarese have for each other.
“I think he’s a great coach,” Savarese said. “I think he’s creating good culture. He has a good staff and I have big respect for him.”
Savarese’s game plans are always part prevention, part hurting the opposition. With Pareja, though, Portland’s new boss will need multiple moves. For both sides, Saturday’s game could turn into a mental game as much as a physical.