FRISCO, Tex. – Off the field, FC Dallas star Mauro Diaz is a quiet guy. In order for him to open up, according to teammates, it takes a lot of time for him to reach a certain comfort level.
The same can be said about his time in FC Dallas. His impact was quiet at first (10 games, two goals, three assists in his first season), but he slowly grew more comfortable as time went on (24 games in year three, with 10 assists and eight goals).
Now, he’s the club’s lead dog and a legitimate candidate for MLS MVP.
“I think he’s one of the best No. 10s in the league, and he should be in those talks,” FCD midfielder Victor Ulloa told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s proven it, and this is probably his best year since he’s been here, and thank God for us that he’s been doing so well and hasn’t gotten injured.”
And injuries are what has plagued Diaz the most going into his fourth MLS season. This year? So far so good. Outside of a stretch in April where he missed four straight games, Diaz is the healthiest he’s been, approaching his 27th match spanning all competitions this season, which is likely to come when FCD host Portland on Saturday (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
His career best in MLS is 27, which was set last year between 24 regular season starts, two MLS Cup Playoff starts, and a U.S Open Cup semifinal appearance.
“He has embraced the proposition we’ve had with him in terms of the fitness demands with [strength and conditioning coach] Profe Fabian Bazan,” FCD head coach Oscar Pareja told MLSsoccer.com. “I think Fabian has been demanding of him more, in terms of strength, discipline and protocol he needed to do, and at the same time I think Mauro has been willing all the time to just improve his habits.
“That says a lot about what he wants and where he wants to go.”
That good stretch of health has helped lead the Argentine playmaker to a pace of career-bests. He’s already tied his career-high in assists at 10, five off the club record, and will likely surpass his highs in minutes played as well.
It’s something that has proven even more crucial for FC Dallas in recent weeks, after the sudden departure of Fabian Castillo to Turkey — but it's a burden Diaz enjoys carrying.
“I know there’s more responsibility on my side, but I’m happy with it because I like to put the team on my shoulders,” Diaz told MLSsoccer.com via translator. “Now they mark me more in the games, and when Castillo was here he’d take away that pressure. But I’m glad I’m doing well and able to put the team on my shoulders.”
Ulloa has also noticed Diaz shoulder the workload, which in turn has led to more offensive chances for him and other teammates who weren’t as involved in attacking before Castillo left.
“Teams were really watching out for him and Mauro, but I think now, teams are more focusing in on Mauro and trying to get him off the ball,” Ulloa said. “I definitely see him getting more on the ball, making plays, being more of a leader in the locker room, and helping us find those goals and come back in those key moments.”
When asked if he thinks Diaz is a legitimate candidate for MLS MVP, Pareja simply responded, “No doubt.”
Diaz, on the other hand, isn’t giving the thought the time of day.
“It’s more important to be a champion,” Diaz said. “We’re in three competitions right now, and in the final of one. I want to be the champion of that one, and then the next two. That’s what I worry about the most. I don’t worry about MVP. That’s the decision of other people.”
The 25-year-old may not be in the top five in scoring and only sits in a tie for fourth on the assist list, but his countless jaw-dropping plays and the threat he poses on set pieces gives him the ability to at least make noise down the stretch from an individual standpoint.
But whether or not the loss of Castillo improves his numbers as 2016 ticks down, Diaz and his team know how important he is if FC Dallas is to hoist any of the four trophies they are in contention for this late in the season.
“The responsibility for the absence of Fabian has been split amongst everybody, and I think the best thing is that all together we are better than any individual,” Pareja said. “At the end of the day, it’s probably a cliché, but it’s true. [But] he’s very savvy. Nobody is better than altogether, and Mauro has been a key player.”