Maybe it’s unsurprising that FC Dallas have started off the year with such a solid defensive showing, conceding just two goals in their first four games. They do have the reigning Coach of the Year in Oscar Pareja, Defender of the Year in Matt Hedges, a fellow US international center back in Walker Zimmerman and plenty of momentum from their Supporters' Shield/Open Cup double in 2016.
The two goals they have conceded in MLS haven't even come from the run of play, both being penalty kicks, making their defensive performances all the more impressive.
Dallas’ defensive success so far stems from two traits:
- A commitment to defending as a team
- A controlled commitment to winning the ball back
Dallas’ defense starts with their forwards. The primary responsibility for the players up top isn’t to necessarily win the ball back, but to create situations in which the midfielders and defenders can easily anticipate where the opponent’s next pass will go. When this scheme plays out as Dallas wants (which is often), their opponent can only do a couple things offensively.
If the Dallas front men have effectively eliminated passes centrally, wide midfielders can eliminate wider passing lanes, and the opposition is forced to play a long ball over the top. And just like in the sequence below, Hedges and Zimmerman, who stand 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively, don’t have too much trouble winning the ball back for Dallas in those moments.
pic.twitter.com/jTgPgwMRnX — MLSclips (@MLSgamefilm) April 12, 2017
In instances where opponents try to connect a shorter pass through a central channel, Dallas’ midfielders and defenders often easily read the play and close down the space.
Dallas creates that exact situation below. They force Minnesota United FC into a predictable pass as the Loons look to build through the middle third. As a result, not only does Dallas take back possession, they nearly score on the counterattack.
pic.twitter.com/gCQpxQjzNM — MLSclips (@MLSgamefilm) April 12, 2017
When teams do find a way into the middle third, Dallas controls their opponent’s space effectively. Below, the back four and midfield four do a great job of staying connected, making it challenging to slip a pass between the lines. Simultaneously, the distance between the back four and their goal makes it equally difficult to drop a pinpoint pass in behind them.
pic.twitter.com/rWdihG2yer — MLSclips (@MLSgamefilm) April 12, 2017
Controlled Efforts to Regain Possession
Pareja’s side is also as committed as any to winning the ball back.
Defensive midfielder Carlos Gruezo certainly embodies that desire in the below clip. Although Dallas does not end up regaining possession, his effort almost certainly turned a dangerous counter into an errant pass away from goal.
pic.twitter.com/RRIqqMV2HL — MLSclips (@MLSgamefilm) April 12, 2017
At the same time, Dallas doesn’t let their desire cause them to be overeager. Gruezo, who has a tremendous work rate, can also be disciplined and pick the right moment to tackle as he does below.
pic.twitter.com/PzUaC2zqvm — MLSclips (@MLSgamefilm) April 12, 2017
Kellyn Acosta shows the same combination of hunger and intelligence. Rather than zeroing in on the location of the ball, he recognizes New England’s best outlet option and shuts it down, winning the ball back in the attacking third.
pic.twitter.com/IS4quKkajq — MLSclips (@MLSgamefilm) April 12, 2017
Coming into their game at the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday night (11 pm ET; UniMás and Facebook.com in US | MLS LIVE in Canada), it will be interesting to see how Dallas’ measured defense matches up with the craftiness of forward Marco Ureña and the creative flare of midfielder Anibal Godoy. If they can maintain the same solid shape they've had in their first four games, Dallas will have a great shot at earning a solid result at Avaya Stadium.