[MLS PLAYOFFS: DALLAS-NEW YORK] The scorer of the winning goal in last year’s MLS Cup would much prefer not to repeat the feat: FC Dallas defender George John says he long ago put behind him the 2-1 loss to Colorado decided by his own goal in overtime.
In each of his three professional seasons, John has been honed by adversity, and he’ll get another tough test as FC Dallas opens its quest for its first MLS Cup.
The 24-year-old center back has blossomed into one of the league’s better defenders after not drawing much notice playing for the University of Washington. He’s formed a strong partnership with Ugo Ihemelu in the middle of FCD’s back line, and that duo will play a critical role in containing New York’s potent attack – Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere, Juan Agudelo, Dane Richards, et al -- in their wild-card match Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, TSN2) at Pizza Hut Park.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for New York and their attacking squad,” says John, a center mid in college who’s made a successful transition to the demands imposed on a pro center back. “I think it’s going to be important Ugo and I to communicate really well, along with [goalkeeper Kevin] Hartman, and to be on the same page to deal with their creativity and strength as well as we can.”
“They have a very strong squad. We have to be aware of all of them, not just Henry’s dribbling. Lindpere is great as well. On the whole they’re a very good team. We have to be wary of them.”
After picking him in the 2009 SuperDraft, the FC Dallas coaching staff sent him right into the defense. So along with striding the gap between college and the pros, he did so not just in a new position, but a very demanding one.
“I found out when I went to training camp,” says the native of Shoreline, Wash. “I was just happy to be here in Dallas. I wasn’t a highly touted college player by any means compared to the rest of the field. I was just happy somebody drafted me.
“When they told me to play center back, I said, ‘Wherever you need me.’ And it’s turned out well.”
In his three pro seasons, John has played 72 games. The Greek national team brought him into a training camp earlier this year -- he's eligible through his Greek heritage -- and he nearly moved to Blackburn during the summer. He traveled to England in hopes a transfer would be finalized, but talks broke down and though he returned disappointed. He also came back determined. He’s not yet heard from the U.S. national team.
“You can’t stress about those things I just have to stay healthy and play well for Dallas and everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “That’ll be a bonus.
“It was a life experience and I learned from it, let’s put it that way. As soon as I got back with the team, it was out of my mind. I was ready to help Dallas get back into the playoffs.”
Says FCD assistant coach John Ellinger, “We drafted him as a defender. We knew he had the physical tools (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and a good feel for the game. We figured he could learn the rest of it.”
Along with crediting head coach Schellas Hyndman, Ellinger and the rest of the FCD staff for developing him, John thanks his college coach, Dean Wurzberger, a defender during his playing days at San Diego State from 1971 to 1975. Wurzberger left Washington in December after 19 years in charge and moved to Allen, Texas, just a few miles from Pizza Hut Park. John dropped by for dinner recently
“I was a central midfielder for most of my career in college,” says John. “When I came in as a freshman, I wasn’t there yet and I didn’t play a lot because of it. Dean and the rest of the coaching staff did a really good job working on my footwork, reading the game and things like that, which really helped me get to the level you need to be in college, and then to MLS.
“I credit much of my success to him.”
He couldn’t be blamed if he believes the bad luck imposed upon him and FCD in last year’s championship game, in which Macoumba Kandji’s shot glanced off him and past Hartman for the winning goal, had returned. The breakdown of the Blackburn deal came a few months after a severe ankle injury sidelined 2010 league MVP David Ferreira for the season.
“We’ve been dealing with his absence all season long and I think we’ve done well for ourselves,” said John of FCD’s fourth-place finish in a brutally tough Western Conference. (Its 52 points would have won the East.) “He’s a great player and we miss him a lot. He’s on-track to get healthy so I’m happy for him.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday Hyndman pointed out that FCD has already played a dozen more games than it did last year, counting the expanded league schedule and Concacaf Champions’League matches. Fatigue has dogged FCD for the past two months, but Hyndman has been resting players – notably flank midfielder Brek Shea – to freshen his squad for the playoffs.
Shea and the Red Bull attackers have drawn most of the pregame attention, but playoff games – like titles – are often won by the superior defense. John thinks FCD is in top shape at the right time.
“We’ve played a lot of games this season, that’s for sure, and I think we have a positive attitude right now,” he says. “A lot of guys are healthy, we’re feeling good, and we’re ready to play.”