FRISCO, Texas -- The road got a little bit tougher for MLS front-runners FC Dallas this week, but coach Oscar Pareja thinks he built a roster ready to withstand it.
Starting center back and 2015 MLS Best XI selection Matt Hedges underwent surgery for a torn meniscus earlier this week, which could sideline captain for as long as six weeks and deliver a blow to FCD's defensive efforts.
Hedges was walking on the practice field Thursday for the first time since his surgery and was not favoring his leg or limping. He said he felt the injury occur during pre-game warm-ups before last Wednesday’s 3-1 win in Portland, but he decided to fight through it anyway.
He said the recovery is day-to-day, but it’s still a frustrating process – especially for a guy who has never suffered a long-term, non-muscle injury in his career.
“I’m not used to being out for awhile; I’m used to being out with the guys,” Hedges told MLSSoccer.com. “It’s tough just being on the sideline to watch. But I just kind of have to be that cheerleader and give them my support so they get the results we need.”
In the interim, Dallas will rely heavily on the back line it worked to bolster this past offseason. FCD brass brought in Maynor Figueroa from Colorado, promoted Aaron Guillen from the team’s academy, and also re-signed Walker Zimmerman after a somewhat lengthy contract dispute. Since Hedges took over the starting role in 2012, Dallas has conceded .4 more goals per game when he does not start.
Zimmerman denied reports that playing time was part of his negotiations with Dallas before the season began and he has since started six of Dallas’ eight games even before Hedges went down. Pareja credited Zimmerman’s growth for the increased minutes.
“Seeing his consistency in the lineup is something he deserves, and same as Zach [Loyd], who has a ton of games with us and knows our system and leadership,” said Pareja, who added that Figueroa and homegrown products Guillen and Moises Hernandez are possibilities in the middle as well. “We have people who can do it and have done it. So, we’re good.”
Zimmerman may have tipped Dallas’ hand a bit, however, saying his main task is to keep developing a partnership with the veteran Loyd on the back line. A regular starter for FC Dallas in the past, Loyd has been largely regulated to bench duty this season, only appearing in four games, three of those starts.
Zimmerman has not been a mainstay however and he has just recently found his stride with the club. The biggest reason, according to him, is his ability to get steady training in the preseason to help keep him healthy.
“The first two years, I didn’t have the time to get a preseason, so I wasn’t able to overload or over-train,” Zimmerman told MLSSoccer.com. “As the season progressed, I was still playing catch-up, so that probably led to a few more injuries. Getting those two preseasons in and being able to overload my body and muscles certainly helped the last two and a half years to stay fit.”
The success has snowballed in a positive direction, according to Zimmerman. The 22-year-old played an entire 90 minutes eight times in 2014, 10 times last season, and has already done it six times in 2016 with more than two-thirds of the season left on the calendar.
“You can’t really substitute an MLS match,” Zimmerman said. “Even if you have a scrimmage or something like that, it’s hard to replicate. So getting games, getting consistency obviously increases your match fitness.”
Although Pareja said Victor Ulloa will assume interim captain duties until Hedges returns, he said Loyd brings value to the field with his leadership, considering he is now the longest-tenured FC Dallas player.
But even if Loyd assumes a vocal role in the back line, he said his approach isn’t changing.
“Whether Matt’s here or not here, I’m always trying to provide my insight to what I see whether I’m in or out of the game,” Loyd told MLSSoccer.com. “At the end of the day, we’re a unit and a team, and as a defense we want to give up the least amount of goals as possible. So my role, I don’t think it’s changed any.”
Dallas did get some good news on the injury front. Pareja said Mauro Diaz will travel to Vancouver with the team and is fit and “ready to go” after missing the last four games with a hamstring injury – providing the club with an offensive spark to make up for a hit it took in the defense.
But even if the loss of Hedges is a temporary blow, Pareja believes his roster is deep enough to hold things together.
“He has shown during the last two years that he’s been a constant in that position,” Pareja said. “But we just focus on the opportunity that arises for the other players, and people who have been with us also and performed as well. So we’re good. The team just keeps moving.”