National Writer: Charles Boehm

FC Dallas hail Nkosi Tafari as "one of the best center backs" after rivalry winner 


With triple-digit Texas summer heat taking its toll, their talismanic striker Jesús Ferreira sidelined by illness and noticeable rust from a 20-day layoff since their last match – that dramatic Leagues Cup loss to Inter Miami CFFC Dallas were staring at more dropped points against in-state rivals Austin FC Saturday night.

A testy, grinding affair at Toyota Stadium looked set to end 0-0 after FCD failed to exploit the advantage offered by Dani Pereira’s 67th-minute red card, a result which would see them slip below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line in the Western Conference and be effectively eliminated from contention for Copa Tejas, the annual rivalry trophy contested by Austin, Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC.

But the story turned on a dime when Nkosi Tafari ranged forward from his center back position deep into injury time. He rose above his former FCD teammate Matt Hedges to flick Marco Farfan’s cross into the net for a stunning 97th-minute winner that sent the home faithful into euphoric celebrations – and perhaps altered the course of the North Texans’ season.

“It's going to be massive,” Tafari told MLS 360’s Nigel Reo-Coker after his man-of-the-match performance. “I mean, we've been off games for about three weeks … we needed to get a good run of form, and we got a lot of injuries going in the summer. But now that we got the whole team back, we needed to start off on a really good foot. I mean, you played, you know how momentum works. You don't really need to be playing the best footy, you just need momentum and form.

“There's minimal time,” he said of his dramatic tally, “so I just ran up towards the end. It was a similar thing that we did in San Jose that, ball goes in, I just go in the box and try and be a guy who’s 6-4, just get your head on it.”

Tafari, 26, also completed 88.6% of his 88 passes, made five recoveries, three clearances and two blocks among 13 defensive actions overall, the latest in a string of solid performances that have vindicated the faith of head coach Nico Estévez.

“He has the physicality that is needed for the league, but he also has really good technique for a center back, he can see passes, he has a different range of passes,” said the Spaniard in his postgame press conference, calling Tafari’s growth “one of the things that I'm most proud of as a coach,” even beyond the team’s positive results.

“When I started working with him [last] year, I talked with him and I said there is a couple of things that you have to change. The first thing is, you have to believe in yourself and you have to want to be one of the best center backs in the league. You have the tools, and you have the profile, but it is up to you and your mind; if you want to take the sacrifices, learn and go for it. And I think he understood the message and he has been great so far.”

One of the more original, offbeat characters in MLS, Tafari also revealed his third goal of the year and the derby win it delivered came under difficult personal circumstances.

“It's been a long week for myself. Today is actually National Dog Day, I had to put my girlfriend’s dog down on Thursday; today would have been her 16th birthday,” he said. “So it's been a long week. However, we prevail, we keep going. I wanted to show up today against Austin, it's a rival … put them in the dirt.”

Support for Jennifer Hermoso

Estévez also addressed the controversy around Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales and his behavior during and after Spain’s Women’s World Cup triumph in Australia and New Zealand, a topic that has roiled his homeland and much of the wider world over the past several days.

“It's very embarrassing, what is happening,” said Estévez, who worked at CF Valencia prior to moving stateside in 2014 to work at Columbus Crew, then the US men’s national team before taking up his current post.

“We should only be talking about the great achievement that the women [of] Spain did – something that started a lot of years ago, where I have a lot of friends that work in women's soccer, in girls soccer, youth, how they were building the academies, how they were working, how they build the leagues, all the effort, all the things that they've done to put this group of women in a position to succeed. I'm really, really happy that they did it. It was very emotional, seeing them doing what they achieved.”

Among many other flashpoints of his tenure in charge of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, Rubiales’ unsolicited kiss of star striker Jenni Hermoso on the trophy dais after La Roja’s WWC final win over England has drawn widespread condemnation and prompted FIFA to suspend him pending an official investigation.

“The people that doesn't know how to behave, doesn't know how to act with women and with the rest of the people, shouldn't be leading a federation like the Spanish one,” said Estevez. “I'm against that, and hopefully, we can see him going out as soon as possible.”

Ferreira transfer speculation

Estévez also provided an update on Ferreira, whose presence on the sidelines of Saturday’s game in street clothes prompted online buzz about his status given his previously-stated interest in an eventual transfer abroad, and the fact the summer transfer windows of many European leagues remain open for a few more days.

“He was sick and he was feeling bad and he couldn't make the game,” said Estévez of Ferreira. “He's feeling a little bit better; he trained today, he trained yesterday a little bit, still with very low energy. Now we expect if everything goes well, that he can play for the St. Louis game [on Wednesday].”

That midweek visit to West-leading St. Louis CITY SC represents another major litmus test for Dallas, who showed the world their potential in a heart-pounding clash vs. Lionel Messi and Miami and who now aim to prove they are legitimate MLS Cup contenders in the season’s final weeks.

“St. Louis is going to be a different type of game, it’s going to be a fight,” said Estevez. “We have to see who is up to the challenge, and put a team that is fresh, that is with energy and is up to the battle.”