Mauro Diaz focused on FC Dallas despite interest from abroad

Mauro Diaz may be a man of few words, but there is no shortage of stories about the FC Dallas midfielder.

There was the time that FC Dallas teammate Ryan Hollingshead gave a postgame interview in which he was effusive about Diaz's performance. When the assembled press walked over to Diaz to get his reaction, the entirety of his reply was, "Thank you, Ryan."

There was also the time that an FC Dallas staffer arranged a meeting between Diaz and one of his sporting heroes, San Antonio Spurs guard and fellow Argentine Manu Ginobili. Diaz didn't say a word, letting teammate David Texeira do the talking instead, though he did manage to get a photo.

As Diaz sat down in the team hotel ahead of last weekend's playoff game against the Portland Timbers, it initially appeared that stealing gold out of Ft. Knox might be easier than extracting words out of the FCD midfielder.

Diaz was sitting on his hands, where they remained for the entirety of the interview. As it turned out, his willingness to communicate is highly dependent on the subject matter.

"When people ask me something that isn't related to soccer, that's when I get a little bit uncomfortable and I don't want to talk too much," Diaz said through an interpreter.

"And I've always liked soccer, that's the way I express myself. I enjoy talking about soccer. I've always been like that."

Diaz's on-field exploits speak loudly enough. He registered career-high numbers with eight goals and 10 assists, and his ability on the ball has taken FCD to the Western Conference Finals, though Dallas trails Portland 3-1 after the first leg. His vision and technical ability have made him the attacking fulcrum in a side that missed out on the Supporters' Shield on goal difference.

"Diaz has matured as a player, and is more complete today than he was before," said Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo.

"Now you can see what he can do. He's two to three pages ahead of the opposing team. He's making this team move."

At just 5-foot-7, Diaz, 24, seems to be precisely the type of player who might struggle with the rugged nature that characterizes MLS at times. But Diaz is solidly built and has now proved he can handle the grind.

"It's a very dynamic game, you go up and down all the time," he said. "It's nonstop action on both sides of the ball. The players are bigger and stronger. But it wasn't that bad. I adapted. I don't think about the physical part. I just try to get the ball and make a play. That's why you've got a referee out there."

Diaz was born in Concepcion del Uruguay, Argentina, a border town of 80,000 people that sits on the western shore of the Uruguay River. He first drew notice for his soccer ability when he was just four. The owner of local club Don Bosco happened to be riding his bike past a park where Diaz was playing.

"He saw me and asked my mom if I could go play for the club," Diaz recalled. "My mom said yes."

But it was Diaz's father, Jorge "Nono" Diaz, who had the biggest influence on Diaz's early career. The elder Diaz had played professionally for the likes of Gimnasia y Esgrima de Concepcion del Uruguay, as well as Belgrano de Parana in the second and third tiers of Argentina soccer. His siblings have also been involved in sports. His sister Rocío represented Argentina's national basketball team at youth level. His brother Saverio is also a basketball player.

"It's always been a big influence in my career, the family has always been important for me," said Diaz.

"My dad went with me anywhere and everywhere. He took me to other clubs later in my career. He wasn't the same kind of player. He was a forward. He had a lot more power, more strength, but he wasn't as technical.

"My dad was always giving me advice. 'Here's what you should do, what you shouldn't do.' But I never felt pressure from him. I always enjoyed playing."

Diaz rose through the youth ranks quickly and joined Argentine powerhouse River Plate when he was 11. He tried to base his game after Pablo Aimar and Juan Roman Riquelme.

But is it even allowed for a River Plate product to show admiration for a player from bitter rivals Boca Juniors?

"I just like his game," Diaz said with a shrug and faint smile.

Diaz continued to progress and was given his full debut by current Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone as a 17-year-old. Playing time was steady over the next two seasons, but Diaz eventually fell out of favor. He made only a handful of appearances during the 2010-11 campaign that led to River's relegation for the first time in its history. Diaz was eventually loaned out to Chilean side Union Espanola. Upon his return he found himself at a crossroads.

"In South America they have a funny way of doing things sometimes," said Clavijo.

"When a player is in the last year of a contract, they kill the playing time. Either you sign, or you don't play. So I think he and his agent had a lot of expectations of what it needed to be, so I talked to them and presented him with the opportunity to come this way."

Clavijo recalled that at the time it usually took some convincing to get a player from South America to come to MLS. Not so on this occasion. River Plate teammates Rogelio and Ramiro Funes Mori had spent time in FC Dallas' youth system, and spoke highly of the club. Rogelio is also married to Diaz's sister, Jorgelina. The fact Guillermo Barros Schelotto also played in MLS and had praise for the league had an impact as well. So Diaz made the decision to head north -- not that it was easy.

"At River Plate, I had a lot of good memories, bad memories, but a lot of good moments in the club," he said.

"It was difficult, emotionally, to leave. But when I had the chance to join Dallas, I had no doubts. It's a league that has been growing a lot, especially lately, and it keeps growing. It was a good offer. I wanted to get the continuity of playing, to be in the starting lineup."

Diaz made a strong first impression but his progress was stunted by a series of leg injuries during the 2014 season. So what changed in 2015? Diaz admits he now takes a more professional approach to his career, both on and off the field.

"It's because of the good work that I did with the coaches and the conditioning coach in preseason," he said.

"I was able to get stronger and get more continuity. It was a lot of work that I put in, and I had to change my eating habits. I was not doing the best for myself, and I adapted to that."

Diaz has also found a kindred spirit in manager Oscar Pareja. Like Diaz, Pareja made his professional debut as a teenager, though he spent a considerably longer period playing in South America than Diaz did.

That said, Pareja has shown a deft hand in developing his young playmaker, sitting him down for a few games early in the season in order to make sure he was completely over the injuries that had plagued him in the past. The way Pareja runs the team provides a level of familiarity for Diaz.

"[Pareja] wants to win everything, and that was something that I was already used to," said Diaz.

"They all do great work, not only Oscar but the whole coaching staff. All of that is something that I felt very comfortable with. Oscar does believe in the younger players, from the club and the academy. That's important."

Clavijo indicated that like Dallas winger Fabian Castillo, Diaz is starting to garner interest from abroad. He added that if the right offer came along, Dallas wouldn't stand in Diaz's way.

"This is the idea," said Clavijo. "That you get a player that you can play and hopefully win championships and then move him somewhere else."

But for the moment, Diaz's sole focus is on the present. He speaks of how grateful he is for the trust and confidence Pareja has placed in him and how he wants to repay that faith. Diaz also knows that the MLS Cup is still out there.

"I can't be happy with the season, we're not there yet," he said. "We still have something that needs to be done."