Commentary: Carroll, Hernandez the engines of their teams

Columbus, FC Dallas midfielders are highly underappreciated

A seismic shift occurred after the 2007 MLS regular season. It was huge. It was the kind of upheaval that would create champions, end one dynasty and begin another.

And for some reason, just about nobody noticed it.

The great seismic shift of November 2007 happened when D.C. United inexplicably left Brian Carroll unprotected in the expansion draft. DC were coming off of two consecutive Supporters’ Shields and Carroll, 26 and in his prime, was their starting defensive midfielder and one of the best in the league.

After being snapped up by the newly constituted San Jose Earthquakes, Carroll forced a trade to the Columbus Crew. In his first year in Ohio, Carroll’s Crew won the MLS Cup – his second – and another Shield. In 2009, he made it four Shields on the trot.

And as things stand at the moment, Columbus are in good shape to take their third in a row, which would be Carroll’s fifth and practically cinch his title as “most underappreciated MLSer in league history.”

The story of this Crew team as it’s regularly told is one of Guillermo Barros Schelotto appearing out of the mist, lugging his sackful of titles up from Argentine side Boca Juniors, and single-handedly elevating the Crew to the top of MLS. It’s a good story, and Schelotto, with his perfect first touch and stunning soccer brain, makes a good hero.

But like most good stories, this one isn’t entirely true. Schelotto’s first year with the Crew was 2007, and that team missed the playoffs. Even with him, Chad Marshall, Frankie Hejduk and most the other faces you see on the Crew these days, that team came up short.

This isn’t meant to belittle either the Crew nor Guille; they’re a team of champions, he’s the straw that stirs the drink and he’ll retire, eventually, as an MLS and Columbus legend.

However, to paraphrase a distraught Zinedine Zidane after Claude Makélélé was shipped out of Madrid, “What good are the other parts of the car if you’ve just gotten rid of the whole engine?”

Carroll is that engine. He’s the main difference between a team that finished out of the playoffs in 2007 and one that finished top of the table the next two seasons. He’s the reason Columbus manager Robert Warzycha can go with inside-out wingers who often leave half the field unprotected. He’s the reason the Crew can spend an entire month conceding possession but somehow never allow more than a handful of good looks on goal.

Down in Dallas, head coach Schellas Hyndman is attempting to write a similar script. He has his diminutive South American enganche in David Ferreira. He has his dynamic, athletic wingers, overlapping fullbacks and rotating cast of forwards. He even has a pretty good approximation of Marshall in young central defender George John.

But it wasn’t until he got his engine, one named Daniel Hernandez, that things really took off for FC Dallas. Hernandez is a familiar face for MLS fans but, in a lot of ways, he’s the anti-Carroll.

Hernandez wasn’t a borderline MLS star plucked from a championship roster in his prime. He’s a 34-year old journeyman whose best years came at the beginning of the decade with the MetroStars, and just after that with Necaxa in Mexico.

Since then, he’s bounced around between the two leagues, never settling in one place for long and never winning regular playing time. Until now.

At this point, with Dallas on an 11-game unbeaten run, it would take either a red card or an act of God to get Hernandez out of the starting lineup.

It’s with good reason. In his younger days, Hernandez was known as much for his fiery temper as he was for his cannon of a free kick or ability to shut down the opposition’s midfield. When that temper was stoked, the red mist would descend and Hernandez was liable to sprint halfway across the field to make a point, leaving his defenders exposed in the process.

But with age and hard-won experience has come maturity. The intensity and fire are still there – Hernandez plays every game as if it might be his last – but these days, that just feeds into his professionalism.

Thanks largely to Hernandez, Dallas are even better than the Crew when it comes to maintaining their shape and defending in numbers. He’s an expert not only at winning tackles, but at anticipating entire sequences and funneling the opposition’s attacks into cul-de-sacs.

It’s his understanding of a holding mid’s primary responsibility – force the opponent into as many bad choices as is possible – that has made Hernandez the most underappreciated player of the 2010 MLS season.

When the two teams square off tomorrow, Schelotto and Ferreira, Marshall and John, Brek Shea and Eddie Gaven will deservedly get a double-handful of attention, praise and headlines.

But deep in both teams’ midfield there is an unsung hero making the whole thing possible. Without the engines, the Ferraris that are Columbus and FC Dallas would not run.