As FC Dallas prepares to host the Seattle Sounders tonight at 7 p.m. at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, here's five questions that I needed answered regarding tonight's game.
1. Is last year's backup goalkeeper Chris Seitz staking his claim to the number one spot?
He’s not even the highest paid keeper on his own team, but with last year’s starter, MLS All-Star Raul Fernandez still sidelined from off-season surgery, Seitz has been outstanding out of the gate in 2014. He’s already made the Castrol Index Weekly Top 20 MLS Performers list three times in the first five weeks, and he seems to be leaping just a little bit farther and a little bit faster than he did last year. He’s showing no trouble getting to those always-difficult low shots, and, perhaps most importantly, his decision-making skills seem to be sharper and faster than ever, allowing him to be bolder in the box and take the kind of risks coming off his line that might confound more inexperienced, less confident backups.
“I’ve been trying to improve,” Seitz said after Friday’s practice. “That’s kind of the philosophy of the team -- to get better every day in training and all that, but at the same time, I’m playing with confidence. It’s nice to get a good run of games and show what I can do and I hope to continue to build on that.”
FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja has noticed Seitz's strong performance as well. “He’s looking great,” Pareja said after Friday’s practice. “He’s helping us a lot to get results.”
So, is there a potential battle for the top keeper spot brewing? According to Pareja, there just might be, and if so, that’s just fine with him, since competition for playing time can make every player better. “Yeah, and I would aim to have every position in the same mold of competition. It seems like the teammate who is not currently playing is pushing really hard. Now I can see six positions on the team that we have to think about who is going to play. That’s great and I hope that we can do it at all eleven positions, for the good of the team.”
2. Is FC Dallas prepared to face the potent threat embodied by Seattle’s star attacker Clint Dempsey?
It’s not everyday that a player the caliber of Seattle’s Clint Dempsey comes to town. The captain of the U.S. Men’s National team and the highest paid player in MLS, he’s not just another guy in the other team’s jersey. By many accounts, he’s the best American player in history. Does that rattle the FC Dallas defense at all? According to FC Dallas captain Matt Hedges, the short answer is, “No.”
“We’re fine with it. It’s not a big deal. Every team we play is going to have good players, so it’s nothing new to us and we prepare the same way and we just have to be aware of him at all times. There’s other great players on the field besides him that can hurt us, so we all have to be aware of all of them,” Hedges said.
Seitz concurs, essentially saying it’s basically just a matter of putting in the necessary preparation. “Yeah, we have a lot of good players in this league,” he said. “Obviously, Clint is a very high profile player, and a very good player. It’s one of those things where we look at that team and we look at their style of play, and where he’s effective and where he gets the ball and we work on situations in practice to eliminate those and to keep those away. We work a lot with our shape and different styles and how they could possibly be breaking us down, and we’re prepared for it. We’re excited to get out there and go for it."
Still, it’s not just another day at the office when Clint Dempsey comes calling. Hedges said it takes more than just great physical ability to face off against a player the likes of Dempsey -- it takes something between the ears. Luckily, he says that just might be his greatest strength.
“I think I read the game pretty well, so I think that will help a lot because they’re very smart players but I think that if I can read the game a little bit better than them, then we can prevent them from getting any really good opportunities.”
3. Have Seitz, and more specifically, Hedges and backup centerback Stephen Keel gelled enough into a cohesive unit to maintain control of the danger zone inside the penalty area?
Seattle has scored all nine of their goals in 2014 from within the penalty area, including three from within the six-yard goal box. That should come as no surprise when a player with a nose for the goal like Dempsey is roaming around. Unfortunately, FC Dallas is still awaiting the return of the man widely regarded as their best defender, starting centerback George John. That means Hedges and Seitz will once again be working with backup centerback Stephen Keel. Still, the partnership has worked well enough so far this season, with Keel garnering five starts in six games. Pareja said he’s pleased that the partnership, though a work in progress, is only getting better as the season rolls on and the players gain experience working together as a unit.
“We’re getting there. The communication that they have among them is great. The leadership that Matt and Steven and even Chris is providing to the young ones is great. They’re doing their job. The coordination is getting there. As we always say, every game is going to be a different story. We’re working every day to get that cohesiveness among players. On the defensive side, they’re getting it and I like to see it.
4. Does the return of former FC Dallas star striker and Dallas native Kenny Cooper, all-around good-guy-extraordinaire, fill his former MLS compatriots with the warm fuzzies?
“Yeah, he’s a great guy, obviously. He’s a guy that was really close with a lot of the guys on the team. He’s a great person and a great player, but I probably won’t be talking to him until after the game,” Seitz said. “He’s an overall good guy. He’s one of those guys that does things right on the field and off the field, and he’s a very humble player and a very good player and a great person so, obviously he had a good time here, and we miss him, but at the same time that’s the sport and we’re looking forward to competing against him.”
Hedges echoes his keeper’s sentiments regarding Cooper. “Kenny is a great guy, a great teammate and a great person. It will be fun to see him again. We wish him all the best, just not when he’s playing against us.”
5. Is Oscar Pareja at all surprised at the success his team has enjoyed so far this season?
Few could have predicted that FC Dallas, after struggling so mightily in 2013, would be sitting atop the standings at this point in 2014. When asked if he dared to dream that FC dallas might enjoy this prolific of a start, Pareja said that he’s not interested in predictions of what the future may bring, or, for that matter, fretting about the past. He says his focus is always on the here and now and taking things as they come.
“I care a lot about the present, to be honest, more than the past or the future because the present is the time that I’m going to live in forever. I preach that to the players. The start of the season -- it could be five games, it could be ten, eleven, I don’t think about it, to be honest. I just think about every game and right now our focus is on Seattle. We face it that way. What happened last year, what happened at the end, what happened at the beginning, what happened in the middle, is the past. We are building our own story here and we will fight for that, every game.