Mauro Diaz, when healthy and happy and in the right situation, is magic. In 2017, he was neither healthy nor in the right situation, and thus didn't look particularly happy with FC Dallas. Nobody did – and honestly, nobody should be. There's no way Los Toros Tejanos should've missed the playoffs.
The catastrophic failure of a season is certain to be followed by a bloodletting of an offseason, and I'd expect at least half of the FCD starting XI to be different in 2018. BigDSoccer suggests that Diaz should maaaaaybe be one of the guys who's relocated:
Give them a click, as the whole thing is worth a read (Drew Epperley does good work even if I disagree with him here). But here's the short version:
- Diaz is fragile
- It's dangerous to build a team around a fragile player
- When Diaz is out, Dallas have to drastically change their shape and approach
- It has been difficult-to-impossible to find a like-for-like back-up
- Diaz has not been the same since his Achilles' injury on the second-to-last day of the 2016 regular season
Last part first: Achilles' injuries are devastating, and I remain shocked that Diaz returned to any sort of competitive action in 2017. He made his debut on June 3, which put his recovery time at 7.5 months. That is quick.
And yes, he wasn't the same guy he had been, but he wasn't exactly a net negative, either, bagging 2g/8a in 1107 minutes. That compares favorably to his 2016 output of 5g/13a in 2150 minutes, and while Dallas were terrible in the second half of this season, it did look like Diaz had gotten most of his mobility back by the final month. That jibes with the conventional wisdom that a "full recovery" from an Achilles' injury generally takes from 12-to-18 months.
Barring another injury I expect the 2018 version of Diaz to be a Best XI-caliber player and one of the most irresistible creative forces in the league.
How many players in league history can pull that off? I screamed when it happened.
Nos. 3 & 4 above are related – because of No. 4, No. 3 is the reality in which Dallas have had to live. You're not going to find a lot of MLS squad players who can hit a perfectly weighted bicycle kick through-ball.
But this is really no different than any other team in the league when they lose their creative force. We saw it two weeks ago when Toronto FC (the deepest team in MLS history) shifted from their usual 3-5-2 to a 5-4-1 in the first game against Columbus because there's just no replacing a Best XI-caliber talent. We saw Atlanta United change drastically the few times they had to play without Miguel Almiron, and when RBNY go without Sacha Kljestan their chance creation drops by about 40%.
That, of course, leads us to Nos. 1 & 2. Kljestan has played 97 of a possible 102 games since joining the Red Bulls before the 2015 season, and Almiron suited up 30 times this year for the Five Stripes. Diaz's career-best season for appearances is 27 in 2016, which is to say that in his healthiest year he missed more games than Kljestan has over the past three years combined.
Obviously that makes him a less than perfect piece to build around, but nonetheless, here you go: In that 2016 season, Diaz made the Best XI as Dallas won the the club's second and third major trophies – the Supporters' Shield and the US Open Cup. In the US Open Cup final itself, Diaz bagged a goal and three assists.
The question is "What is the best game an MLS playmaker has ever produced with a major trophy on the line?" With all due respect to what Guillermo Barros Schelotto did in the 2008 MLS Cup, here's your answer:
If Diaz was taking up a DP slot, I think you could make a philosophical argument that perhaps, given his injury history, it's time to move on. He's not, though. Diaz is a TAM player and if you can get 2000 minutes of that out of a TAM player, you've hit the jackpot.
There are three other points I want to bring up here. First is that Dallas's problems last year didn't really have to do with Diaz's absence or his return, nor did they have to do with juggling formations and tactical blueprints. Their problems had to do with wasted DP slots (Anibal Chala, Cristian Colman), previously excellent players forgetting how to soccer (Carlos Gruezo, Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, Kellyn Acosta), forwards who forgot how to finish (Maxi Urruti, Colman), an over-reliance on under-performing veterans (Maynor Figueroa, Hernan Grana, Atiba Harris), and a dysfunctional locker room that was both a cause and symptom of all of the above.
Even if Diaz returns – and I'm near certain he will – Dallas are in for an overhaul. A bunch of the guys mentioned the previous paragraph won't be back.
Second is that soon-to-be 18-year-old Homegrown Paxton Pomykal could/should/hopefully will be the answer to "what does Oscar Pareja do when Diaz is out?" Pomykal was dominant in this past year's Dallas Cup, leading FCD to the championship. He toyed with Everton in a 5-0 win and was the best player on the field twice against Monterrey (who have the best academy in Liga MX), including in the final.
Pomykal, who got 140 MLS minutes this past year, isn't the same type of No. 10 as Diaz in that he's not really a through-ball artist. He's more of a combine-and-move guy, closer in style to a Federico Higuain in terms of his vision and mobility. If Dallas are determined to get back to their roots as the league leaders of the #PlayYourKids movement, they have to figure out how to get him at least 1500 minutes in attacking midfield, either in the center or on the wings. Some of those minutes absolutely should be planned in advance to provide rest for Diaz.
And the final point is this: Diaz has never had a reputation as the hardest worker in terms of his fitness and off-field approach, but that changed somewhat after the injury. Folks I've talked to who are close to the FCD organization say he exceeded expectations in his Achilles' rehab, and the timeline (again: 7.5 months is a really quick recovery from that particular injury) suggests those reports are accurate. If he's turned a corner in terms of his off-field approach that suggests the nagging soft-tissue injuries that have robbed him of playing time in previous seasons will be less of an issue going forward.
There are, of course, no guarantees. It's entirely possible that Diaz gets injured again, just as it's entirely possible that any potential Diaz replacement gets injured. Or Pomykal could outplay him in preseason and win the starting job, relegating Diaz to a backup role, or Dallas could have another offseason of awful acquisitions and spend another year outside the playoffs. There is a high degree of variance when trying to project FCD next year.
Nonetheless, I'm going to wager on Diaz returning to peak form in 2018. He'll be a year-and-a-half past his injury, he'll be in the prime of his career (27 years old), and he'll have plenty to prove both internally and externally. My guess is that Pareja, Fernando Clavijo et al will be wagering on him as well.