AUSTIN – Mauro Díaz, FC Dallas’ Argentine playmaker and midfield engine, can do things that very few players in Major League Soccer can pull off.
On the ball, the diminutive Díaz can be graceful, elegant, even beautiful to watch. Consistently talked about as one of the league’s toughest players to defend, the 23-year-old bobs and weaves through opposing defenses like a prize fighter. He hits like one, too, able to thump the ball toward goal like a player twice his size.
On the field, Díaz’s play often speaks loudly. Off of it, the former River Plate player is a lot quieter. You’ll get no selfie goal celebrations or Twitter outbursts from him. You’re lucky if he even engages in small talk.
One topic Díaz does open up about is his childhood, his soccer roots. His father — Jorge “Nono” Díaz — also played, a regular at Argentine first division side Gimnasia.
“I started playing with him when I was four years old,” Díaz told MLSsoccer.com at last month’s ATX Pro Challenge tournament. “I used to follow him everywhere — I’d follow all of his games; now he follows mine.”
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Sports run in the family, to say the least. His younger sister, Rocio, has played basketball for Argentina’s national side; Díaz's older sister works for his former club — River Plate — and actually married former FC Dallas youth standout Ramiro Funes Mori last year.
Díaz ended up in MLS after an up-and-down five-year stay with the Argentine giants. He was a member of several competitive River Plate sides, but he also waded through their disastrous 2011 campaign that resulted in the club’s first relegation of their long history, an experience that Díaz says helped mold him as a player.
"I obviously grew from that experience,” he said. "But those are things that can happen to any soccer player; at the end of the day, obviously, I just feel fortunate to have played at River Plate. I played with the biggest club in Argentina alongside some very, very good players.”
Díaz starred in limited time with FC Dallas in 2013, scoring three goals and notching two assists in just 10 games after signing with the club in July. He had big expectations heading into 2014, but his season quickly turned maddeningly frustrating.
Though the midfielder showed flashes of the eye-catching form that Dallas had become familiar with, he only managed to start nine matches all year, a result of a series of knee and hamstring injuries. Even in those limited minutes, Díaz nabbed MLS Player of the Month honors in March and was a chief contributor when healthy.
Though many prognosticators pick Dallas — a club with a fair amount of talent sprinkled throughout their lineup — to finish near the top of the Western Conference in 2015, they’re largely doing it with one caveat: Mauro Díaz has to stay healthy.
Thankfully for Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja, Díaz is feeling good so far, saying he feels 100 percent for the first time in recent memory.
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“Right now, Mauro’s looking good,” Pareja said. "Mauro is a player that we want to prioritize. We want to take care of him and keep him away from injury; at the same time, we have to be creative and push him and put him on the level that we want. He’s a very valuable player, one who provides us with a lot of ideas in the field. We’re trying to keep him as healthy as we can right now.”
Díaz shared similarly positive feelings about his head coach, a man many put among the most tactically proficient in MLS. Pareja and Díaz share similar outlooks on the game but different personalities; the Colombian manager is as vocal as they come in training, something Díaz attributes to a bit of South American flair.
"Honestly, he’s a great coach,” said Díaz. “He knows exactly what he wants to get out of players. He has a great mind, and a very South American approach to things. He has a burning passion to win, and that shows. I don’t think that’s necessarily something people elsewhere are familiar with, but this team is starting to get on board with his tactics and techniques. He’s a winner.”
Dallas’ 2014 playoff loss is still fresh on Díaz’ mind. After drawing Seattle 1-1 at home in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals (without Díaz, who was suspended), Dallas travelled to CenturyLink Field and were held to a 0-0 draw, becoming the first MLS team to be eliminated via the away-goals tiebreaker.
While the playoff loss lingers – and motivates – there is an undeniable air of positivity around the club as they prep for 2015, with many of Díaz’s teammates saying the young midfielder only contributes to the good vibes.
"Mauro is a great player,” said defender Moises Hernandez, who is close with Díaz. “He’s a great guy off the field, and that translates on and off the field. He’s a good teammate. On the field, he does these amazing things that players don’t expect. He’ll obviously help us a lot this year, as he did last year. Hopefully he can stay healthy. He creates goals, scores them.
"He really is the type of player that a lot of teams in MLS don’t have."