It was a good weekend for MLS’s Texas trio. You might even call it their best weekend ever.
Granted, all were at home this past weekend, and all have enjoyed twice as many home dates as road trips thus far. Still, it’s an occasion significant enough that The Striker Texas, the state-focused soccer media site launched a little over a year ago, rolled out a steep discount to commemorate it:
MLS birds of a Texan feather are flocking together: Austin, Dallas and Houston currently sit in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Supporters’ Shield standings with 11 points from their first six matches (all three are on 3W-1L-2D), and running 4-5-6 in the Western Conference. As early as it remains in the 2022 campaign, that’s a vast leap from last season, where the trio were also stacked together at year’s end – in 23rd, 24th and 25th place, just a handful of points away from rock bottom.
Here’s a look at what’s going right so far down in Texas, where the mercury will only rise higher in the coming months.
Goals and ganas
No one in MLS has scored more than the Verde, who share the league lead in that department with LAFC at 14 goals each. You can chalk some of that – 10 of them, to be specific – up to their early goleadas at home against FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami. Yet we have reasons to believe this is no paper tiger.
Sticking to Josh Wolff’s measured possession system, ATX have created quality chances this year. And unlike 2021, they’ve got both the personnel and the personality to convert them into an end product, with Sebastian Driussi on four goals already and three others having chipped in two apiece. The data-crunchers at American Soccer Analysis calculate Austin’s expected goals for out to 9.77, which ranks fifth-best in the league in their latest tabulations.
Also important: Wolff himself sees a great deal more fighting spirit in his current group than before, which has shown itself in their resilience and persistence, most recently in Sunday’s hard-earned 1-0 home win over Minnesota United.
“This group has more spine to it, there’s more character,” said Wolff after last month’s 1-1 home draw with the Seattle Sounders, revealing, with no small degree of satisfaction, that his players have occasionally scuffled in what has been a more intense daily training environment. “I think there’s a different mentality, there’s better leadership, and we’re going to continue to develop that. But there’s more character and resolve.”
A tougher, more hectic schedule will test them next month, marked by visits to Real Salt Lake and both Los Angeles clubs.
Kids and control
The North Texans have flashed some of the most aesthetically pleasing soccer of the season so far, outplaying quality opposition in multi-goal home wins over Nashville, Portland and most recently Colorado, who were dispatched 3-1 at Toyota Stadium on Saturday. With five goals, Jesus Ferreira has now pushed into a joint lead in the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race alongside Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Brandon Vazquez.
Notably, FCD have done this with a very young central-midfield core in an expansive 4-3-3 structure that hinges on quality and consistency in that area, with the homegrown troika of Edwin Cerrillo, Brandon Servania and Paxton Pomykal showing out. Even for an academy-centered organization, that’s impressive.
Their Spanish head coach Nico Estevez’s game model isn’t just about pretty patterns, though. It’s also about control – dictating the terms on which Dallas’ games are played. That means movement, ball circulation, maximal width and aggressive counterpressing not just because those are strengths for this roster, but also because they can stymie the adversary’s best-laid plans, as strong numbers in both goals against and xGA suggest.
Though it wasn’t exactly a pre-planned succession, the transition from previous head coach Luchi Gonzalez to Estevez has carried a certain ideological consistency for FCD that has made this feel like an evolution, something built atop foundations already laid rather than a full rebuild.
Something similar can be said about their squad upgrades, with wave after wave of profitable outbound sales generating an ample war chest to fund the acquisitions of Alan Velasco and Paul Arriola. That spending also seems to have boosted awareness of the club around the DFW Metroplex, as big, spirited crowds have flocked to Frisco to cheer on the Hoops this spring.
Perhaps the biggest Texas turnaround of all is underway in the Bayou City, where Paulo Nagamura has shown pragmatism and adaptability to steer La Naranja to the same sturdy start as their in-state rivals with less dominant performances across the run of play and less overall talent at his disposal.
Don’t let Saturday night’s 4-3 barnburner win over San Jose distract you from the fact that the Dynamo have become much more difficult to play against; that was the first time they’ve conceded more than one goal this year, and they still found another gear to dig out a victory anyway. The big headline in that regard is showpiece offseason acquisition Sebastián Ferreira opening his H-town account, then striking again for the eventual game-winner to bag a brace.
As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle has explained in some detail over the past few weeks, Nagamura – who arrived with ample Sporting KC DNA from his tutelage under Peter Vermes – sought to institute a pressing system during preseason.
But he’s since shifted his focus, and his team’s shape, to get the most out of the weapons at his disposal, starting with Darwin Quintero, who at age 34 looks rejuvenated to the tune of a team-high four goals in 350 minutes, which, yes, works out better than a goal a game. That’s probably not sustainable for the “Goal Scientist” but it’s certainly a boon for a club very much in need of any sort of Ws to rally fans, players and staff alike.
Even with a first-year coach and new ownership eager to spend big to haul the club back into the MLS reckoning, there was always a risk that a slow start might turn the Dynamo’s troubled recent history into a ball and chain around their proverbial ankle. This is indeed a new era in Hustle Town, but most everyone around the club felt a similar way when Tab Ramos arrived ahead of the 2020 campaign, and that didn’t pan out (though not all of that can be laid at Ramos’ feet).
So kudos are due to Nagamura and his staff, who can slip a few more tricks up their sleeve going into matchups with both Austin and Dallas later this month.