In the course of less than 24 hours, FC Dallas defeated Mazatlan FC in the Leagues Cup round of 32, set themselves up for a meeting with Lionel Messi on Sunday, traded away a homegrown, and signed a UEFA Champions League winner.

Let’s react to a crazy day for FC Dallas.

Moving Past Mazatlan

With unending discussion about the potential of Messi making the trip to Frisco and Toyota Stadium, it almost felt like the prerequisite, actually beating Mazatlan in the round of 32, had become an afterthought. Luckily, the team certainly did not approach the game in that way, and right from the start of the game, Dallas jumped all over the Liga MX side, with Alan Velasco, who was once again excellent in his new midfield role, smacking the crossbar with a long-distance blast in the first 10 minutes. Dallas continued to pour on the pressure throughout the first half, holding Mazatlan to very few opportunities, but the two sides went to halftime at 0-0.

Very shortly after halftime, Bernard Kamungo once again took advantage of another start and nicked the ball away from Mazatlan defender Lucas Merolla before earning a penalty after Merolla shoved him over in the box (yes, you read that right, FC Dallas earned a penalty!). Velasco stepped up and put the ball past Daniel Gutierrez to give Dallas the 1-0 advantage. Just 10 minutes later, however, a sloppy bit of defending from Jose Martinez gave Mazatlan their first clear sight of goal, and they took their chance well, with Sam Junqua unable to block Andres Montano’s shot on the line. Jader Obrian had the ball in the net twice for Dallas but was called offside on both occasions (the first was way offside, and the second looked to have potentially been a missed call). A triple substitution saw Sebastien Ibeagha, Paul Arriola, and Eugene Ansah enter the match, and 10 minutes later, Ansah would nab his second goal for Dallas, a header at the back post off a fantastic delivery from Jesus Ferreira. Dallas would then weather the storm in the final minutes, with Maarten Paes making his weekly world-class save to keep Mazatlan from tying the game, and Dallas saw out their 2-1 lead in the end.

Overall, it was one of the stronger performances from the team in recent history, which bodes well as the team continues to get healthy after their rash of injuries in the early part of the summer. Sebastian Lletget, Facundo Quignon, and Alan Velasco were excellent once again in midfield on both sides of the ball. Sam Junqua, deputizing for the injured Marco Farfan (minor hamstring injury according to the FCD radio broadcast), put in an excellent shift at left back, and Nkosi Tafari anchored well in the back. Perhaps most encouraging was the Burn’s ability to create chances with Mazatlan largely sitting in a mid to low block defensively. This is something that Dallas has struggled with for years, but they were able to regularly carve out chances and half chances both in transition and against the block. Look for that to continue in future games.

Saying Goodbye to Cerrillo

Just after Dallas’ victory over Mazatlan was confirmed, MLS insider Tom Bogert dropped a deadline day bomb: homegrown midfielder Edwin Cerrillo was being traded to the LA Galaxy.

After such little activity throughout the window for FCD, with Eugene Ansah’s signing and the sale of Justin Che being the only real activity, it was a shock for fans and media alike to see. Dallas only had two experienced defensive midfielders on the roster, Cerrillo and Facundo Quignon; trading away Cerrillo leaves a clear hole on the roster. And isn’t this the team that wants to “build from within” and “play the kids”? Why would they make this kind of move?

As the minutes and hours into the night ticked away, the reasoning became a bit more clear. Cerrillo was nearing the end of his contract, and it seemed likely that Edwin and the club had reached an impasse on a new deal. Cerrillo had never really been able to lock down the starting position and was still prone to occasional mental lapses on the field. Facundo Quignon has been playing the best soccer since joining the club. And most importantly, it seemed that Dallas was on the verge of making another deal.

Ultimately, Dallas traded Cerrillo for $200,000 in General Allocation Money up front, with the potential for another $400,000 to come through if Cerrillo meets certain performance metrics with the Galaxy. That seems likely, as Cerrillo is joining a team in desperate need of a defensive midfielder after Gaston Brugman went down with a season-ending injury. He seems set to start for the Galaxy for the remainder of the season. Dallas received some much-needed funny money, the Galaxy got a player in a position needed, and Cerrillo is in a place where he’s ensured a lot of playing time and is able to refresh his career. It seems like a good move for all parties, as painful as it might be to say goodbye.

Signing Illarramendi

As soon as the Cerrillo trade news came through, speculation started on what else Dallas was cooking up. Surely the team wouldn’t try to get through the rest of the season with just Facundo Quignon at the 6, right? Maybe they would sign North Texas SC player Carl Sainte to a first-team contract? Lists of free agents with MLS experience were scoured, with the assumption that Dallas wouldn’t be going after any kind of big name.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when the news came out on Thursday morning that Dallas would be signing former Real Madrid and Real Sociedad player Asier Illarramendi. Illarra, as he’s known, is a UEFA Champions League winner and made over 200 appearances for Real Sociedad in La Liga. He is a player with a massive pedigree and a huge amount of talent, with Dallas signing him as a free agent after his contract with La Real ended at the end of June.

Of course, this is FC Dallas, so there are some caveats here. Illarra did play regularly for La Real in 2022-23, but he was largely coming off the bench in his 24 appearances, as he only made 13 starts. In the three seasons prior to 2022-23, he only made a combined 17 appearances due to injuries. At age 33, he’s no spring chicken, and it certainly is a question of how he will handle the heat of North Texas as well as the travel in MLS. Dallas was very smart about his contract, though he is only guaranteed through the rest of the 2023 season with an option for 2024, so if things don’t work out, it will be easy for FCD to move on.

But if things do work out, Dallas may have one of the most talented and high-quality players in club history on their hands. I can’t wait to see him in action.

Preparing for Messi and Pals

It would certainly be a big help to have a player of Illarra’s experience for Sunday’s huge matchup against Inter Miami and Lionel Messi. Still, unfortunately, he is not likely to be around the team for a few weeks as his visa and ITC situation get squared away. So the Burn will take on perhaps the greatest player of all time with basically the same team that has gotten them to this point. It will be a bizarre matchday experience for everyone involved, from players to staff to fans, as the Messi circus descends onto Toyota Stadium. With ticket prices in the resale market already regularly pushing above $1000, the crowd in attendance will likely be largely ambivalent to the home team, focusing on the Argentinean superstar more than anything else in the game.

Ultimately, there’s no way to “shut down” Messi, especially with him playing with the likes of Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, who is likely to make his first start for Miami on Sunday. The entire FCD backline, along with the midfield, and Quignon in particular, is going to need to be up to a huge task of doing their best to limit Messi’s opportunities. Messi has an incredible ability to find and exploit open space, despite every player and coach in the world being fully aware of what he is capable of.

Messi is Messi and has turned what was a lackluster Miami attack into something competent, but Miami is certainly still susceptible defensively. The Dallas offense has looked rejuvenated lately, and they’ll need to be on their best game to put pressure and score goals against a Miami backline that leaves gaps and spaces for opposing attacks.

Dallas also will need to emotionally and mentally prepare for what may feel like an “unfair” advantage for Miami, and Messi in particular, from the officials. Oscar Pareja and Orlando City can certainly attest to some of the “soft” treatment Messi and Miami have received from officials, as Messi was probably fortunate not to receive a second yellow card for a rough foul against Orlando, and Josef Martinez earned what could generously be called a soft penalty for Miami’s second, an ultimately game-winning, goal. I won’t go so far as to say that the officiating will be outright biased against Dallas, but Dallas will need to be ready to hold their emotions in check if some calls don’t go their way.

Finally, FCD needs to enjoy and embrace the moment. They will be the first team that Messi plays on the road since moving to Miami. The world will be watching the game; they have a massive opportunity to show themselves to be a team of true quality and put on a show for the fans in the stands and watching on TV. This is an opportunity to create a lot of brand new FC Dallas fans with an unprecedented audience, perhaps the most people to have ever watched this club play a game. No pressure, guys!

What are your thoughts on a crazy day for FC Dallas?
Did you manage to get tickets for Sunday’s matchup against Inter Miami?

Photo: Stewart F House/Dallas Morning News

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