[MLS] Despite playing much of the best soccer seen this season in MLS, the grand prize of a league title narrowly evaded the team born as the Dallas Burn in 1996. A first-ever appearance in the final game and a nicely balanced roster -- age and youth, grit and skill -- came up a goal short, and an own goal at that, against Colorado at MLS Cup.
The two MLS Cup finalists reached that convergence point by different paths. In many games, including the final, the Rapids didn’t expect to “create opportunities” in the literal sense, i.e., of players’ instincts and abilities and experience melding, and through a shared intelligence possessions morph into scoring chances. Inventive, dynamic, and confident playmakers like David Ferreira, Guillermo Barros Schelotto or Javier Morales bring out the artist in other players to exploit the opposition.
Colorado used a more rigid, formulaic method succinctly stated by captain Pablo Mastroeni after the final: “It wasn’t us trying to create a goal, it’s trying to get to a spot where you can be dangerous. I think our two goals came from that.” Reliance on flank play and pressure on the corners are staples, and certainly the robust presence of Conor Casey serves as a focal point for attacking moves.
ATTACK MODE. By contrast, Dallas' Ferreira floats, darts, and cruises along the border of the attacking zone, probing and scheming for the run or dribble or one-two that will split open the defense. Not quite a second forward, Ferreira can be classified as a prototypical MLS No. 10: strong and quick enough to ride tackles in congested areas, confident enough to strike for goal himself, and sufficiently two-footed and multifaceted to beat defenses in many ways.
“One of the things that speaks pretty highly about David is, his workrate is very good but I think it’s his composure on the ball,” says goalie Kevin Hartman. “Everyone on the team recognizes if they give David a ball, he’s going to do something good with it. You’ll see everybody looking toward him to create for us.
“He’s very, very athletic. I think his first few steps really allow him to get away from the lunge of an opposing defender. His ability to hold onto the ball is extremely frustrating. He links the defense to the offense and he links wing to wing, and he’s really a complete player. He gets assists for us but he scores goals at crucial times for us as well.”
In the 26th minute last Sunday, Ferreira wheeled away from pressure to cushion a cross from Marvin Chavez in the penalty arc, and with a clean, accurate, right-footed strike rifled the ball low into the side netting. “He can finish as well as any forward in the league,” says Coach Schellas Hyndman, “and he might be the best passer in the league as well.”
Former D.C. United midfielder Marcello Gallardo is a far more accomplished player with Argentine national team experience, but despite his heritage, at 34 he wasn’t robust enough or hungry enough for MLS. Ferreira is the perfect storm: supremely skilled and boldly confident, but also deeply committed to powering his team to success: his frustration at seldom breaking through Colorado’s defense after opening the scoring etched worry and despair into his face.
Dozens of high-priced foreigners have flubbed their way through MLS with barely a shake of the head; not so Ferreira. He influence waned in the second half and in overtime; Colorado knocked him down a few times, and effectively double-teamed him on other occasions, but lackluster showings by forward Atiba Harris and left mid Brek Shea greatly limited Ferreira’s options to cut through the Rapids’ back four.
The age (35) of Jeff Cunningham limited his effectiveness in the playoffs, and Milton Rodriguez played just one postseason game because of a shoulder injury. A deficiency in the attacking third during the final probably cost FCD more than the marginal breakdowns by which the Rapids scored twice, and addressing that need is an important element in FCD’s preparations for 2011. So, too, is the progress of a solid core of younger players, including Eric Alexander, Eric Avila, Shea, Kyle Davies and Ruben Luna. (Davies and Avila, along with Dax McCarty, were among the players exposed in the expansion draft.)
Along with upgrading the depth and quality of his squad, Hyndman forged a strong sense of camaraderie and blended foreign players with young Americans out of college as well as veterans acquired from other teams. It’s a proven formula in MLS but change can also go wrong, as Hyndman alluded to in comparing earlier moves to those he made in the past year and a half.
“Last year, I thought we were going to be better, and abilities and personalities we had to make some changes with leadership and all those things,” he said a few months ago. “Then remember last year we had that great run and came up a point short. The team that got in was Salt Lake, and they won it all, so that’s the example.
“The thing that’s been remarkable for me is with the amount of injuries we’ve had, the guys who have stepped in to do such a good job in those roles. Last year we were playing at New England and I said to one of my assistants, ‘I’ll be damn glad when I can coach and worry about the opposition rather than my team.’ Now I think we’ve finally got to that point.”
SUPER KEEPER, BAD LUCK. While skeptics praised FCD’s fluid, incisive attacking play, and strong central midfield core of Ferreira, linkman McCarty, and defensive keystone Daniel Hernandez, a dependence on the remarkable goalkeeping of Kevin Hartman downgraded their reviews.
Injuries had much to do with FCD’s occasional defensive glitches. McCarty, Hernandez, defenders Ugo Ihemelu and Heath Pearce and Hartman himself missed significant periods through injury; once the postseason got underway, Hartman acrobatically and courageously bailed out FCD against Real Salt Lake in the conference semifinals and his former Galaxy teammates in the conference final, with both decisive games coming on the road.
After squeaking past RSL, 1-1, to win, 3-2, on aggregate, FCD stunned the Galaxy with a Ferreira goal from very nearly the same spot as he scored a week later in the final. Second-half goals by defender George John and midfielder Chavez finished the job.
“He has a certain way he wants his team to play and you can tell that,” said San Jose coach Frank Yallop of Hyndman’s work. “Everyone’s comfortable on the ball but they have a good workrate. They’re dynamic when they go forward and they’re tough defensively. He’s got a nice balance.”
Ironically, having turned away severely testing shots in those games to edge FCD into the final, Hartman surrendered two garbage goals to Colorado: an equalizer in the second half and the winner in the second overtime.
Some observers criticized his failure to corral a low, near-post cross on the first goal, but he lunged for the ball at about the same time as did Rapids forward Casey and teammate Jair Benitez, and in the ensuing scramble it popped loose for Casey to poke over the goal line. The second goal came off the foot of Macoumba Kandji -- who slipped past Benitez on the right flank and drilled a cross into the goalmouth -- and the thigh of John, stationed in the goal area.
A midfielder at the University of Washington, John came to FC Dallas in the 2009 SuperDraft penciled in as a defender. He played 16 games (15 starts) last year and started all 25 of his regular-season appearances as well as the four playoff games this year. The man he effectively replaced, Colorado defender Drew Moor, praised his former teammate in the aftermath of a vivid example of how cruel soccer can be.
“George John’s a good friend of mine and he’s a fantastic defender,” says Moor, who came to Colorado from Dallas in a trade last year with Ihemelu going in the opposite direction. “I got to play with him a little bit last year and I can tell he’s going to be a very, very good defender in this league. He’s big and strong and he’s hungry.
“I feel for him. He needs to keep his head up because he’s had a fantastic couple of years so far.”
Said McCarty, “When you try to review the game you think the two goals they scored are goals we haven’t given up all year. Two kind of iffy goals; they scored them and that’s that.”
FCD ranked third during the regular-season with 29 goals allowed. Hartman set a league record with a 0.62 goals-allowed average in 20 games.
SO CLOSE. FC Dallas fans and players and coaches can console themselves that such a close miss should set them up for another deep run next year, but recent history refutes that belief. No finalist since 2007 (Houston-New England) has reached the final a year later: 2008 champion Columbus stumbled in the first round and darkhorse New York plummeted to a five-win catastrophe, and both 2009 finalists – Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake – were knocked out this month by FCD.
Still, with only Cunningham, Rodriguez and captain Daniel Hernandez (both 35 next year) facing age issues among the regulars, there’s cause for optimism, no matter the obstacles. FCD set a single-season league record by going 19 games unbeaten and tied the league record for fewest losses with four while playing an attractive, stylish possession game. Hyndman was Coach of the Year,
“It’s definitely bittersweet because we know we had a tremendous year but in the end it’s all for nothing,” said McCarty, one of the last FCD players to leave a bitterly quiet locker room. “We’re going to try to do the things to get us back to this point next year, keep the core group of guys together.
“We have a very talented team, we have a young team. We’re going to learn from this experience and hopefully when this opportunity comes again we won’t let it slip through our fingers.”