2016 MLS season preview: FC Dallas

After enjoying a run to the Western Conference final last season, Oscar Pareja's youthful side will be aiming to take another big step forward in 2016.

2015 regular season: 1st Western Conference (2nd overall)

2015 playoffs: Conference Finals: 5-3 aggregate loss to Portland Timbers

MLS Cup odds: 13/1

Players in: Maximiliano Urruti (Re-Entry Draft), Aaron Guillen (Homegrown), Juan Esteban Ortiz (Atletico Huila, undisclosed), Carlos Gruezo (Stuttgart, undisclosed), Maynor Figueroa (Colorado Rapids, trade), Carlos Lizarazo (Cruz Azul, loan), Mauro Rosales (Vancouver Whitecaps, trade), Ryan Herman (SuperDraft), Timo Pitter (SuperDraft), Colin Bonner (SuperDraft)

Players out: Bakary Soumare (retired), Otis Earle (option declined), Danny Garcia (option declined), David Texeira (option declined), Michel (option declined), Stephen Keel (out of contract), Dan Kennedy (LA Galaxy, trade), Rolando Escobar (waived), Ezequiel Cirigliano (waived), Blas Perez (Vancouver Whitecaps, trade), Je-Vaughn Watson (mutual contract termination)

After reaching the Conference semi-finals in 2014, FC Dallas’ youthful roster took another big step forward last season, only missing out on the Supporters’ Shield on goal difference. They subsequently saw off the Seattle Sounders on penalties in the Western Conference semi-finals following a thrilling 3-3 aggregate draw, before their lack of an elite goalscorer ultimately cost of them dear in the Championship series against the Portland Timbers.

Replicating 2015’s success will obviously be no easy task, but with a true No. 9 now on board in Max Urruti and the core of the squad remaining intact, they can certainly give it a good go.

Reasons to be positive

Dallas left far too many goals on the field in 2015 due to the since departed David Texeira’s struggles, but the aforementioned Urruti should prove a major upgrade. The 24-year-old Argentine was never a first-choice starter during his two full seasons with Portland, but he showed plenty of promise whenever called upon and was only cut loose in December because of the MLS Cup winners’ salary cap issues. Now finally getting the chance to earn some regular playing time, plenty expect him to thrive under the guidance of one of the league’s smartest head coaches in Oscar Pareja.

Of course, Urruti will also have the added advantage of lining up with playmaking compatriot Mauro Diaz in Dallas. The skilful No. 10 recorded eight goals and 10 assists in 2015 despite missing 10 games through injury, and keeping him healthy for a full season will be key to the club’s success.

Either side of Diaz, Colombian wingers Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios are sure to give opposing full-backs even more nightmares this season with their pace and skill, while youngsters like goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, newly capped US international Kellyn Acosta, utility man Ryan Hollingshead and holding midfielder Victor Ulloa have all established themselves as more than capable starters.

Then there’s Matt Hedges. The 6ft 4in centre-back arguably should’ve won the Defender of the Year award last season, and in a just world, he’d have won significantly more USA caps than the solitary appearance he made for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in February 2015.

With several more promising South Americans also arriving this winter to help further bolster an up-and-coming squad, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about what Pareja’s side can do in 2016.

Trouble on the horizon?

As good as Hedges may be, there are some questions about the rest of FCD's backline. Zach Loyd partnered his towering teammate at centre-half for most of 2015, but he'd ideally be playing at full-back instead. The versatile veteran was even dropped for the second-leg of the Conference Finals against the Timbers after a poor showing in the 3-1 first-leg defeat, and it remains to be seen whether his replacement, Walker Zimmerman, can be relied on as a regular starter at this stage.

Furthermore, the situation at both full-back spots is currently up in the air. First-choice right-back Je-Vaughn Watson was released earlier this month for family reasons, while a clear favourite to start at left-back is yet to emerge as opening day approaches.

Thankfully, though, Pareja is not short of options. New signing Maynor Figueroa could easily play at centre-half or on the left-hand side of defence if needed, and there is plenty more cover at full-back between Atiba Harris, Hollingshead, Moises Hernandez and Acosta.

Key man: Fabian Castillo

Arguably the league’s fastest player, Castillo built on a breakout 2014 season with an even more impressive 2015, recording nine goals and nine assists in 30 regular season games. The 23-year-old winger’s impressive performances not only earned him his first All-Star Game appearance but also saw him break into the Colombian national team, while he was subsequently named the No. 1 player on MLSsoccer.com’s annual “24 Under 24” list.

His name has since been linked with the likes of Mexican giants Club America and Swansea City [h/t ESPN FC], but Dallas will be hoping that they can keep hold of him for at least another season.

One to watch: Carlos Gruezo

Despite being only 20 years old, Gruezo arrives in Dallas with an impressive résumé. Signed from Stuttgart in January as a Designated Player, the Ecuadorian holding midfielder made 18 Bundesliga appearances during his two-year stay in Germany and was also the second-youngest player to start a game at the 2014 World Cup behind England’s Luke Shaw.

He may have to wait for minutes initially if Pareja proves reluctant to break up the central pairing of Acosta and Ulloa, but it shouldn’t be long before he forces his way into the line-up given his obvious potential.

Predicted regular season finish: 2nd Western Conference

Topping the crowded West is no mean feat, but the fact that Dallas did it last season with such a young roster is all the more impressive. The likes of Acosta and Castillo are now blessed with another year of experience, and with Pareja guiding them from the sidelines, they should be among the league’s elite again in 2016.

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