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Mar 18, 2008

Critical year for a young Dallas squad

Editor's note: This is the seventh of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 13-12-5 (third in the West)

Key additions: M Andre Rocha, D Duilio Davino

Key losses: F Carlos Ruiz, F Denilson, D Chris Gbandi, D Clarence Goodson

Key questions facing team

1. Can a tried-and-true 4-4-2 guy adjust to a fancier formation?

It seems that coach Steve Morrow, schooled at Arsenal, would be hard-wired into a four-man back line. But Morrow says the Gunners actually used a 3-5-2 a couple of years while he was there, so he's quite comfortable with and committed to playing three across the back. He says it best fits Dallas' personnel.

So the 4-4-2 is out for now. Instead, he wants the team familiar with a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-4-3 setup. It's all about getting the best from Juan Toja, Kenny Cooper and Arturo Alvarez. When Toja's available, they'll deploy him at the top of the midfield triangle in a 3-4-1-2, exploiting his long legs to go at guys from the center of the park.

If Toja's not available or if they need something different, they'll use three forwards in front of four defensive-minded midfielders. (And speaking of Toja, here's the answer to the more compelling question as it concerns Dallas' second-year workhorse: Yes, he's still rockin' the mullet.)

The other key in this formation tweak is subtracting some responsibility from Alvarez; they want him free to improvise in the attack.

2. Can Kenny Cooper lead the scoring parade?

The local product seems to have recovered nicely from last year's broken leg. Morrow says the big striker looks fit and focused, and he is confident that Cooper's drive for contract renegotiation (with two option years remaining) will stay on low boil and won't dent that reliable attitude and work ethic.

That said, it's all about production when you are the go-to striker. Without Ruiz around, Cooper no longer must play a subjugated role. Now he's the primary target, with Toja and Alvarez set to work off his ability to collect, hold and distribute, and otherwise bother defenses.

Cooper's heart has never been questioned, but he sometimes struggles to work within a team framework. A target of 8-10 goals seems worthy.

3. Can new leaders stand up?

This question continues to dog FCD, which can't seem to get it sorted out. This was a team, after all, that made the mercurial Ruiz its captain a year ago. And "mercurial" is never a word you want associated with your captaincy. Morrow feels sure that Davino, Adrian Serioux and Drew Moor can act as shepherds. But Davino's English is limited, injuries have limited Serioux's participation over the last 12 months or so and Moor, who is developing nicely, simply hasn't assumed that role before. That's not to say that real leaders, guys who truly command respect, police the locker room and keep the team on course, can't come forward. But until it happens, the question stands.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"The circus is over with Denilson. You think the league would learn a lesson with those kind of moves, but they don't. Steve Morrow has changed that team around more times than I can recall. Steve has been around, he's played in this league, he's been an assistant coach, he's been a head coach now for a couple of years. What he fails to do really surprises me -- and that's find consistency. He's changed that team around more times than he's changed socks and he really needs to find what works. He just can't seem to figure out which players he likes for any extended period of time. One of the things I think he doesn't do is instill belief in his players. Everybody is walking on eggshells and they don't know. One day he likes you, the next day, you're Chris Gbandi. Nobody knows where they stand with him, which really surprises me. I don't think he's the right guy for Dallas."

3. Is the defense better?

Half the starters are gone from a Red Stripes back line that allowed 44 goals last year, third-worst among eight playoff teams. Chris Gbandi took an offer in Norway and Clarence Goodson was left exposed in the expansion draft -- then took an offer from Norway. This year it looks like Davino will man a free role behind center backs Moor and Serioux, with Alex Yi and Aaron Pitchkolan in reserve.

The selections in the wide spots seem to be about protecting the back line. At present, David Wagenfuhr, a defender by trade, and Dax McCarty, at his best as a defensive midfielder, appear to be the picks.

Biggest X Factor: Andre Rocha

Team officials love what they've seen so far from 23-year-old Brazilian midfielder Andre Rocha, a product of the club's association with Atletico Paranaense. They hope he's the 2008 version of Juan Toja, a bargain South American midfielder who has style and ability to match his work effort.

Rocha already has played an important role, providing leverage for a club that is suddenly in a contract squabble with defensive midfielder Pablo Ricchetti. Rocha gives the team cover in case things go really south with their second-year veteran Argentine.

If all goes well, Rocha and Ricchetti will sit side by side as a balanced pair of defensive midfielders; Rocha can provide the legs and range while Ricchetti supplies the guile and guidance. Rocha also has a good shot from range, finally giving FCD something Western Conference rivals Houston (Ricardo Clark) and Real Salt Lake (Kyle Beckerman) have at that spot.

Breakout player to watch: Arturo Alvarez

A classic case of numbers not telling the story: Alvarez's production in MLS last year looked pretty modest: 3 goals and 3 assists in 27 matches. But he repeatedly rose in big games: three goals in SuperLiga, including a couple of spectacular ones; the comeback game-winner to clinch an MLS playoff spot; a goal in the U.S. Open Cup final; an Open Cup quarterfinal game-winner and the clinching PK in yet another Open Cup match.

All of that, despite how much of last year's offense was built around feeding Carlos Ruiz at the target spot. So, Alvarez has a spectacular opportunity this year to seriously amplify his value. It won't be easy, however. He won't sneak up on anybody, and teams don't have to focus as much attention on Ruiz anymore.

Alvarez truly could mean the difference between a good 2008 season for FC Dallas or an entirely underwhelming one.

Outlook

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England vs. Chicago
8 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose vs. Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Dallas was often at its best in '07 at its youngest, with guys like Toja, McCarty and Cooper buzzing about. This year the Red Stripes seem to be going younger still, leaning heavily on those same three, plus fellow youngsters like Rocha, Ray Burse in goal (possibly) and others.

The young legs will be immeasurably more effective if Davino (80 caps for Mexico) can become the Claudio Suarez of Texas. The former Club America man must mitigate a slight loss of speed with an old hand's acumen at timing, awareness and assessing how much, exactly, he can do against a given striker on a given day.

It's a critical year for Morrow, who dismantled a pretty decent team when he took over last year, unconvinced that the particular construction he inherited could go any further. If he's feeling any pressure for '08, he isn't showing it.

Goals? Cooper, Alvarez and Toja simply must come through. Otherwise, middleweights such as Abe Thompson, Ricardinho, Dominic Oduro will be under pressure to produce, and they've yet to prove themselves as game-changers.

The Red Stripes may be consigned to pursuing Chivas USA and Houston, but being competitive with the rest of the West should be considered mandatory.

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