FRISCO, Texas – For the players left over from the 2016 season, Thursday cannot come fast enough.
Sure, it has been more than three months since FC Dallas fell flat in the MLS Playoffs against the Seattle Sounders, and Thursday will mark four months since superstar Mauro Diaz suffered an Achilles injury that has him starting the season in rehab.
But Thursday’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals first leg at home vs. Arabe Unido is the MLS club’s first opportunity to get back to its winning ways on the pitch and pick up where it seemingly left off before things went awry in late October.
“We need to just wipe that year away. New year, new beginning for us,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “We have new goals to accomplish, starting off with the Champions League. Thursday is a big opportunity to reach that point.”
FC Dallas return most of their key pieces, with the exception of Diaz via injury, from a 2016 season that ended up being the club’s most decorated. Still, that success does not automatically guarantee more in 2017, which is why Dallas are so focused on the upcoming match.
“It’s a new slate. Last year is last year,” said defender Walker Zimmerman. “We aren’t guaranteed to be in any finals this year just because we won two trophies last year. This is it. This is our first step.”
The first step won’t exactly be a baby step. FC Dallas are going up against Panamanian side Arabe Unido, one of only two teams to win all four games in the CCL group stage in 2016, outscoring their opponents, 12-5.
To put it in perspective, FC Dallas went 2-2 to win their group, outscoring opponents by an 8-4 mark.
“They definitely have some special players,” said Acosta. “They have some big guys on set pieces. They’re pretty clinical. They have some good wingers and a No. 10 who likes to get on the ball, who’s creative in that sense. They have some forwards that can capitalize in front of the goal, so we need to be mindful of them and limit their space and their time on the ball.”
Though returning many key pieces, finding a consistent attack without Diaz pulling the strings is arguably FC Dallas’ biggest question mark heading into 2017. That plagued them in their opener against Seattle in the Western Conference Semifinals last fall, putting them in too deep a hole to overcome.
Morales spent 10 years with RSL and brings not just a similar skillset as Diaz, but also a level of CCL experience that not many on FC Dallas have. Acosta said he has already asserted himself as a leader during training.
The Argentine veteran says that comes naturally, but what he wants to impart on his team the most heading into Thursday is how crucial it is to understand the nuanced part of the Central American game.
“It’s a different game, especially when you play [Arabe Unido],” Morales told MLSSoccer.com. “They’re going to come here to waste time and try to make it a dirty game. It’s going to be tough, so we have to be smart and try to score as soon as possible.
“[We] can’t be frustrated – it’s what they want,” he added. “They want to get us frustrated and lose concentration, and then they can take advantage of the little things.”