COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – To figure out what’s different with Dillon Powers in 2014, all you have to do is look at his facial hair.
Last year, the Plano, Texas, native showed up to his first MLS training camp in a crew cut, clean-shaven and looking ready for an entry-level job interview. This year, however, the MLS Rookie of the Year came in sporting a mullet and a thick, impossible-to-miss mustache.
Maybe it’s just hair, but it’s pretty clear that Powers is more comfortable off the field in his second year as a pro, and perhaps that is translating to increased success on it.
Powers only has one official assist and no goals so far this season. But anyone who has watched Colorado knows that Powers’ dynamic ability to deliver a slicing through ball, along with a newfound creativity, have helped the 23-year-old attacking midfielder take the next step in his game – particularly offensively – and his club has reaped the benefits as a result.
“I certainly feel a lot different mentally,” Powers told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “Part of it is just having a year under my belt. Part of it is [head coach Pablo Mastroeni] creates an environment where he wants us to play free. I’m not worried about messing up. I’m worried about playing my style of play, and I think that lends itself to being more free on the ball and having more success.”
Mostly playing atop a diamond midfield at the heart of Mastroeni’s 4-4-2 formation over the last few games, Powers has looked more at ease after alternating between a more defensive midfield role and an attacking spot during his rookie campaign. It has helped him spearhead his team's eye-catching 3-1-1 start to 2014.
In Colorado’s 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers on March 22, the Rapids won on two penalty-kick goals – and both penalties were set up by Powers through balls. Last week, it was Powers’ darting run through the heart of Toronto’s penalty box and subsequent pass that allowed Edson Buddle to fire home for a 1-0 road win over TFC.
“I think he’s one of those players that sees the play two or three steps before most,” Mastroeni said. “That’s kind of why we went to this [diamond 4-4-2] formation: to have more midfielders – technical midfielders – in the middle of the park to allow them to express themselves a bit more, to get the ball a bit more, versus having too much structure going forward.
“It [allows] players like Dillon Powers to get on the ball in different spots and be creative in different areas and for him to utilize his strengths.”
And Powers isn’t even 100 percent yet. He did not have a proper preseason due to a battle with knee tendonitis, leaving him in serious doubt to even suit up for the season opener on March 15. Even a full month into the season, he does not consider himself 100-percent match fit.
“I’m almost there,” Powers said of his health. “I think each week I’m making improvements as far as the pain level in my knees. Last time I spoke with the guy I’ve been working with, he said, 'Give it a month,' and I’ll adapt to the load.
"It’s been about three weeks since then, and I’m feeling really good. I think going into next week I’m going to be really close, and I think I can feel a difference in the way I’m running.”
Even short of full speed, there is little doubt in teammates’ and coaches’ minds that the 2014 Dillon Powers is a step above the award-winning 2013 version. But in Mastroeni’s eyes, there is still more that he can achieve – and it starts with breaking his goalless skid.
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“I think he’s really taken it in the last couple games and really found himself in good spots,” Mastroeni said of Powers. “Now if we can free him up to get shots on goal and to really take that next step in the attacking third and really drive on and be as dangerous as he’s been and even more moving forward, it’d be a tremendous benefit to what we’re trying to do moving forward this season.”
A centerpiece of the Colorado midfield from the start of last season, Mastroeni believes the key to Powers' success is his decision-making in tight spaces, something that could earn him a ticket to Portland for this year’s MLS All-Star Game or, after the World Cup, a chance at Powers' ultimate goal: the US national team.
“[There] are decisions that need to be made in a split second on the soccer field,” Mastroeni said of Powers this week, while adding that he plans to rest his No. 8 periodically this season to avoid burnout. "I can’t coach that. You’ve got to understand that these are the responsibilities that you have to take on when you’re playing in tight spaces in the middle of the field and getting forward. I think [Dillon’s] one of these guys that flourishes with that type of responsibility. He loves it.”
Powers' flourishing start is clearly about more than just the hair, which is good news for Rapids fans: He shaved off both mullet and mustache on Tuesday.
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.