The walk from midfield to the penalty spot is long and lonely. It only gets longer and lonelier when you’re walking up knowing a goal wins the shootout.
FC Dallas rising star Alan Velasco took that long, lonely walk in front of a sold-out Toyota Stadium on Monday night. He wanted to be the fifth shooter, he asked to be the fifth shooter, with this scenario a real possibility. Unfazed by the moment or the weight of pressure, Velasco slowed down and delivered a delightful chip – a panenka.
“Some players have a special gene,” head coach Nico Estevez said of Velasco after the game. “He’s a competitor. He wants to win, he wants to make FC Dallas big. It’s not only the quality he gave to the team, it’s the work he does. It’s amazing.”
Velasco missed a month due to injury at the end of the season, only making his return off the bench on Decision Day to play 29 minutes. Not only was he fit enough to start on Monday night, but he also lasted all 120 minutes and was the hero in the shootout.
“I can’t believe he did it,” Estevez said of Velasco playing the entire game after injury. “I was worried, I kept asking him ‘how are you doing?’ He was mad at me that I kept asking. I said, 'I was trying to take care of you!' But he kept saying ‘I’m good! I’m running! Did you see that run?!’ It’s unbelievable.”
Putting the pieces together
The 20-year-old is a key player for Dallas, arriving in a club-record transfer from Independiente last winter. Velasco had six goals and seven assists in his first MLS regular season and made his postseason debut Monday.
Velasco was among the most important changes as the club reset this winter, aiming to reverse fortunes of missing the playoffs in 2021. The Argentine youth international was acquired in a $7 million deal, an opulent addition made possible after Ricardo Pepi’s club-record transfer to German Bundesliga side FC Augsburg.
Jesus Ferreira was given a contract extension that made him a DP, while Paul Arriola was acquired from D.C. United in a league-record trade of $2 million GAM to round out a new-look attack. Estevez, a first-year head coach, committed to making Ferreira a lone forward in his preferred 4-3-3 formation to great effect.
A battle till the end
Back in the playoffs, Dallas are through to the next round, but it wasn’t easy.
Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair had a monstrous 120 minutes, frustrating FC Dallas every step of the way with eight saves, but even he was no match for a perfect penalty shootout by the home team.
Franco Jara, Sebastian Lletget, Matt Hedges, Ferreira and Velasco each buried their spot-kicks. Estevez revealed the club brought in a psychologist to training this week to aid in the mental preparation for a potential penalty shootout.
“I’m not going to tell you the techniques,” he said with a laugh. “Well, I think it worked.”
Maarten Paes did his job as well, saving one of Minnesota’s five kicks. One was enough.
“Maarten is a special goalkeeper,” Estevez said. "In the big moments, he shows up. We knew he would show up in the shootout.”
Dallas got to extra time by coming from behind in regulation. Minnesota opened the scoring through talisman Emanuel Reynoso in the 53rd minute, but FCD scored 11 minutes later, as Facundo Quingon knocked home a corner kick.
Reynoso’s goal was his ninth goal contribution (2g/7a) in just five career MLS playoff matches.
Ferreira was held quiet by Minnesota amid a frustrating night for the USMNT forward. He had a golden chance to score in extra time when a deflected cross rolled to him six yards out, but the homegrown forward scuffed his shot. Lletget nearly scored a backheel on the play, but St. Clair scrambled to save it on the line.
St. Clair had seven saves or more four times in the regular season, most in the league.
The Round One match was an intense, all-action affair, as one would expect for a playoff game. Dallas move on, setting up a matchup against Texas rival Austin FC in the Conference Semifinal at Q2 Arena on Sunday (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes).
“It’s going to be tough in Austin,” Lletget said on the field after the game. “But we’re ready.”