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