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Mar 26, 2007

FC Dallas gambles on roster overhaul

Editor's note: This is the fifth of 13 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2007 season.

2006 record and finish: 16-12-4 (first in Western Conference)

Key additions: D/M Adrian Serioux, M Juan Carlos Toja, M Anthony Wallace.

Key losses: M Ronnie O'Brien, M Richard Mulrooney, M Simo Valakari, D Greg Vanney.

Key questions facing team:

1. Is the big gamble going to pay off?

GM Michael Hitchcock and new coach Steve Morrow bypassed "tweaking" for "roster overhaul," effectively dismantling a team that led the league in wins last year -- a substantial gamble.

Former GM Greg Elliott, with plenty of money left over from predecessor Andy Swift, assembled a team in 2004 that he believed could drive hard toward a championship. Richard Mulrooney, Simo Valakari, Greg Vanney, Eddie Johnson, Ronnie O'Brien and Carlos Ruiz headlined the effort.

Well, things happen. People get hurt. Athletes get older. Suffice to say, the plan didn't pan out. Current GM Michael Hitchcock, frustrated with two consecutive first-round playoff exits, initiated the significant upheaval by firing manager Colin Clarke. Then new coach Steve Morrow, bearing huge belief in the team's young talent, jettisoned the big salaries. Four of last year's top five earners are gone; only Ruiz remains.

2. Can a young back grow up fast?

Never will there be a better opportunity for Drew Moor (23), Clarence Goodson (24) and Alex Yi (25), the impressionable backbone of FC Dallas' 2007 defense. Moor and Goodson have held tentative starting roles before, but always had Vanney around to provide direction. Moor and Goodson appear to be the central pairing now.

Former center back Yi will get a shot at right back, where Morrow prefers a natural defender. Clarke deployed converted forward Bobby Rhine, who provided attacking punch but was sometimes out of position defensively. On the other side, Chris Gbandi finally had the kind of year in 2006 that made him the league's initial draft pick in 2002.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"When Morrow took over for Colin Clarke -- most people were under the impression that they were of the same line of thinking -- but upon getting the job Morrow stated that he was a very different coach than Clarke.

That has yet to be seen. Dallas has not looked good in preseason, which isn't saying much. They do have some good players. It will be interesting to see how Steve Morrow addresses Ramon Nunez. He's somebody in my eyes who needs to have the ball early and often. When he's able to dictate the flow of the game, he's one of the few players who can take over a game. He's got great targets in Kenny Cooper and Carlos Ruiz. Whether they can keep the ball out of the net with their goalkeeping issues will be the question. I think it's all about Steve Morrow really."

Eric Wynalda is an ESPN soccer analyst.

Morrow's coaching specialty is defense, so there's pressure on him to tighten up a rear guard that yielded 44 goals, most by an MLS conference winner since 2000. Former Dynamo center back Adrian Serioux will help, assuming he fully recovers from major offseason knee surgery.

3. Can the Ruiz-Nunez combo thrive?

FC Dallas needs a huge year from Carlos Ruiz, who was fourth in league goal scoring last year with 13. By this time next year, the feisty striker will be the club's Designated Player (a few big-money types like Ruiz, Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson were grandfathered into regular roster spots this year, but they will assume a DP tag next season).

So, is 13 goals enough, especially considering Ruiz will be heavily involved in World Cup qualifying in 2008? Some of his fortunes will hinge on Ramon Nunez. The gifted but temperamental attacker is 21, about to begin his third MLS season. He started 20 games last year but was used sparingly toward season's end, as Clarke leaned on players more attuned to defense.

Now Morrow wants to unshackle Nunez, planting him in his preferred central role and aligning the chess pieces to provide ample defensive cover. Ruiz will be the target man, playing ahead of Nunez. In other words, the team's 4-2-3-1 scheme was devised primarily to accommodate this important pair. Now it's on them to validate that trust.

Biggest X factor: Adrian Serioux

New manager Morrow adjudged that his defense lacked sufficient bite. So the club gave up O'Brien to pursue Houston center back and defensive hammer Adrian Serioux. (Serioux played defensive midfielder and center back for Houston last year; Morrow likes him most in defense.)

But FC Dallas did not know that Serioux had a lingering knee ailment, and club officials were stunned to discover that the Canadian international required major offseason surgery. (There was even talk of a league inquiry, although nothing came of it.) So Serioux is out until perhaps July. His ability to recover fully and assimilate into the effort will weigh heavily on the Red Stripe's season outcome.

Breakout Player to Watch: Kenny Cooper

Cooper would have given 2006 Rookie of the Year Jonathan Bornstein a serious challenge but for MLS guidelines that made him ineligible for the honor. (Cooper had previously signed a pro contract, although he played only for Manchester United's reserves.)

Still, Cooper enjoyed a fabulous season with 11 goals and four assists in 29 starts. Riding the confidence of his first U.S. cap (and first international goal), and playing a role that may offer further attacking freedom, Cooper seems primed for an even grander sophomore season. Last year he often played as an outside midfielder in a 4-4-2. This year he'll set up wide in Morrow's 4-2-3-1 look, which gives him a tad fewer defensive responsibilities.

Cooper has looked fit and lively in the preseason and should benefit from the attention paid to Ruiz and Nunez.

Outlook:

Dallas is leaning heavily on the unpredictable outcomes of addition by subtraction. By stripping away the proven talent, the team is wagering that youngsters will exploit the opportunity and elevate their performance.

Morrow knows the club will take some lumps early, especially with goalkeeper Dario Sala suspended for six matches for his part in a brawl following last year's playoff ouster.

Gone from that group is the coach (Clarke), its top assist men (O'Brien, Mulrooney), its captain and bedrock of professionalism (Valakari) and its most-trusted defender (Vanney).

The likely results: A far less experienced roster will endure a wobbly adjustment period, and young attackers Nunez and Cooper will expand their influence significantly. The 2007 season is all about how Morrow can tutor and cultivate the talent throughout the entire eight-month march. The early results may not be particularly pretty, especially with Serioux gone for half the year.

With Mulrooney's late-March trade to Toronto, three of last year's four starting midfielders have moved on. No question that Mulrooney had lost an edge, but he did provide nine assists last year, tied for eighth best in MLS. Morrow is putting tremendous midfield faith in young Colombian Juan Carlos Toja (who played last year at Argentina's River Plate), first-round draft pick Anthony Wallace and second-year man Dax McCarty. Two deep-lying midfielders will screen the defense as Nunez concentrates on attacking from the head of a three-man central triangle.

For two previous campaigns FC Dallas cruised in the regular season but collapsed in the playoffs. So the plan this year is to absorb some body blows in the spring and early summer, then accelerate into August, September and October.

Optimistic scenario: Two steps backward lead eventually to a big step forward. Pessimistic scenario: The club drifts further into a wrenching loop of hope and disappointment.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.