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New Direction in Dallas
November 8th, 2006 1:15AM
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So Colin Clarke has taken the fall for his team being upset not once, but twice, in the MLS conference semifinals by Colorado despite being the higher-seeded team.

Did he deserve it? Well, the blame for a disappointing performance always falls in the same direction, and for losing twice in the playoffs with a chance to play in the championship game as host, general manager Michael Hitchcock can't be blamed for jettisoning Clarke.

"It's a strong roster with a lot of depth at all positions and we feel that we didn't realize our potential this year," said Hitchcock yesterday during a conference call announcing the news Clarke's contract would not be renewed.

But the rationale that Dallas underachieved despite superior talent isn't so easy to justify. Yes, the regular-season record this season was impressive, but Hitchcock's assertion that FC Dallas is among the most, if not the most, talented team in the league bears scrutiny.

How many FC Dallas players will be, or should be, named to the MLS Best XI? Let's go by position:

GOALKEEPER. Dario Sala isn't the equal of Joe Cannon, Matt Reis, Troy Perkins, Pat Onstad and probably one or two others. Signing Shaka Hislop is a move that made no sense when it was done and makes even less sense now: to burn a senior international slot on a player whose peak performances for West Ham last season and T&T last summer will never be repeated, especially in a low-key league like MLS.

DEFENDERS. The revolving door of central partners for Greg Vanney typifies the lack of quality at this position. And Vanney, despite his experience, at this point in his career isn't as valuable as Michael Parkurst, Eddie Robinson, Bobby Boswell, etc. Clarke bears the responsibility of not filling a vital position with a strong player, especially with a SI slot available before Hislop was signed. Houston filled a need with Paul Dalglish, for example.
Chris Gbandi had his best season at left back, and Bobby Rhine is solid on the other side, but again, neither is numero uno at his position. And it was Gbandi whose reckless red card opened the door for Colorado to rally in the second conference semifinal.

MIDFIELDERS. Watching the conference finals, and especially Houston and New England, illustrates how Dallas suffers in this area of the field as well. And a player who can be regarded as among the league's elite is one of the club's biggest problems.

Ronnie O'Brien is among the best on the right flank, but as one observer said, "He's a me-guy," which his recurring insistence to play inside and snippy comments about positioning seem to bear out. Ramon Nunez, while talented, also let selfishness get in his way this season.

"A team is no different than a front office or a business," said Hitchcock. "When you have so many different personalities, and strong personalities at that, and once again, I would argue with your point, that I think we have so many talented players that it's a challenge to manage that."

By not properly handling O'Brien and Nunez, Clarke forced changes in other positions as well, i.e. playing Kenny Cooper at left mid in place of Nunez rather than up top. Cooper, a revelation and complete professional in his first MLS season, did everything he could.

Also not satisfactorily resolved was the chemistry and cohesion of Richard Mulrooney and Simo Valakari in the middle. At times Mulrooney would drift wide to cover for O'Brien's moves inside, and not until late in the season did he seem sufficiently recovered from his ACL injury to resemble the staunch warrior who won two titles in San Jose. Valakari's incessant fouling and lack of range aren't secrets and comparing him to other central mids like Ricardo Clark and Shalrie Joseph is no contest.

FORWARDS. Carlos Ruiz is a strong, formidable scorer and without the distractions of playing World Cup qualifying, was supposed to deliver consistently. He did cut down on his unexcused absences but forwards on other teams put up superior numbers and sharper efforts. Maybe this is as good as he gets and the team has to decide if it's good enough.

Abe Thompson can play. For assembling a forward group of Ruiz, Cooper, Thompson and Roberto Mina, Clarke has to be commended. And a team that scores four goals in the conference finals has done enough offensively to advance.

INTANGIBLES. Talent alone doesn't ensure championships. A collective can certainly exceed the abilities of those individuals that comprise it, especially in league of parity. The personalities and abilities have to be melded, and that duty is shared by all concerned. Also shared is a duty to toughen up in the playoffs, and teams that don't - no matter how talented - get punished. Remember San Jose and D.C. United last year, or the Fusion in 2001, or the Fire in 2000, or the Galaxy (24-8) in 1998?

The fighting spirit that carried Colorado past Dallas, and New England past D.C. United, and Houston past Colorado, just wasn't on display often enough at Pizza Hut Park. In the final weeks of the season Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake were tighter and tougher than FC Dallas.

"Obviously, at the end of the day, the coach is responsible for pulling the team together and getting them through those tough times," said Hitchcock. "Everyone accepts a piece of accountability when it comes to any of those issues we've had."

Clarke pays the price for that accountability, of course, but the renovation of FC Dallas is far from done.

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