For one of the hottest teams in MLS, excuses don’t apply.
A dispiriting, draining defeat to Philadelphia in a U.S. Open Cup final that went all the way to penalty kicks would have been the perfect explanation for a listless performance by FC Dallas four days later at San Jose, which had already beaten it twice in league play.
Instead, FC Dallas stampeded the Quakes, 5-0, Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium to run its unbeaten streak in league play to nine games (six wins, three ties). Rookie Tesho Akindele rang up a hat trick, Fabian Castillo assisted on one of those goals and scored two himself, and FCD posted its fourth shutout since the World Cup break.
“The streak has taken dedication from everyone on both sides of the ball,” said Akindele.
Head coach Oscar Pareja used the sixth overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft to claim Akindele after he scored 79 goals in four seasons at the Colorado School of Mines. The hat trick upped his pro tally to seven.
“We’ve been scoring a lot of goals," Akindele, a former Canadian youth international, said, "but we’ve also been allowing fewer goals than we were in the beginning of the season. I think offensively and defensively, we’re starting to click.”
In his first season in charge of FCD, Pareja has been able to generate results despite lacking a few players for significant stretches. Forward Blas Perez, who leads the team with eight goals, has been battling injuries and intervals of poor form. Designated Player Mauro Diaz has missed 10 games with a knee injury he suffered in late April after logging three goals and three assists in eight games. Two forwards signed during the offseason to take the scoring burden off Perez, Andres Escobar and David Texeira, have tallied a combined three goals. Former All-Star defender George John didn’t play a minute prior to undergoing knee surgery Aug. 1 that will keep him out for the rest of the season.
Gone from last year’s team are ex-captain Andrew Jacobson, Kenny Cooper, Eric Hassli, Jackson, and former league MVP David Ferreira. FCD’s 2013 collapse was one of the most dramatic in league history: after an 8-2-4 start that propelled it into first place, FCD won just three of 20 and wound up eighth. Head coach Schellas Hyndman announced his resignation during the final week of the season, and after more than two months of wrangling, the Rapids and FCD negotiated a contract buyout and compensation that allowed Pareja to take over in Dallas, where he played as one of the league’s top midfielders from 1998 to 2005.
Whatever the exchange rates of talent and experience between 2013 and 2014 may be, Pareja spoke of the team’s perseverance in the aftermath of the loss to Philly.
“We emptied ourselves,” he said. “The players did on the field and that’s something that I’m very proud of. They left everything on the field really. It was one of those performances that encouraged you and made you feel not just proud but honored to belong to this club and this group of players.”
In the wake of last year’s catastrophe and the departure to numerous veterans, the mantle of leadership has been borne by players such as defender Matt Hedges, a third-year pro who won a national collegiate title with North Carolina in his senior year and this season has scored three goals while playing every minute of his 23 starts. Brazilian midfielder Michel hits some of the best left-footed balls in the league and is second on the team with seven goals. (He was second on the team last year in assists with eight.) Zach Lloyd has played well in different spots along the back line. Akindele has blossomed since starting his first game three months ago.
Yet the force that foes fear is Castillo, the first MLS teenager (age 18) signed to a Designated Player contract when FCD acquired him in 2011 (and then converted to Young Designated Player contract when it was introduced in 2012). Castillo torched MLS opponents with his raw speed but rawness in other areas has impaired his progress. In 2012, he incurred more cautions (seven) than he scored goals (six). He equaled the caution total last year while scoring only twice, but this year, at age 22, the 5-foot-8, 150-pound whirlwind is showing more than a hot set of wheels.
Pareja was directing FCD’s academy program when Castillo was signed, and once he returned to FCD the coach set about polishing up this rare gem. Like Akindele, Castillo has been deployed out wide as well as up front. They started together for the first time three months ago in FCD’s first visit of the season to San Jose May 10, manning the wide midfield slots in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Perez as the lone forward. Castillo put two of three shots on goal but didn’t score, and FCD left defeated, 2-1, despite playing a man up for the entire second half.
“Fabian needs to find the net, and that will make him a different player,” Pareja said after that game. “The amount of chances he creates is incredible, but we’re working on it and that is the only way to find answers: keep working.”
The product of that work tore the Quakes apart last Saturday. Castillo scored the first goal by chasing down a long ball and muscling past defender Jason Hernandez, then gliding past his desperate lunge to chip a cool, clever shot into the net. A few minutes later, his pass provided Akindele enough room to score just inside the post.
Akindele put away the rebound of a saved Castillo shot to score the third goal and Castillo glided past Hernandez again to notch the fourth. Akindele rounded off his hat trick in the 86th minute on another rebound. Against a team that had allowed only 22 goals in 20 games prior to kickoff, FCD hit five in less than an hour of play.
Trampling a team it lost to three months ago at the same venue is a mark of significant progress, as is that nine-game unbeaten streak (which dates back to a 2-1 home loss to the Quakes May 31). Yet the toughest part of the schedule is yet to be played; FCD has two more meetings with Real Salt Lake, starting Friday night at Toyota Stadium, and also must play both the Galaxy and Vancouver twice. A trip to Colorado is the second-to-last game of the season. Home games with Portland and Seattle are on the docket.
Bouncing back with a vengeance after that bitter Open Cup loss is a sign Pareja’s team has the resilience he wants.
“This group has shown a lot of character,” said Pareja after the beatdown at Buck Shaw. “I don’t know if people realize how much adversity this group has gone through this year -- I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. They stand up and keep pushing, and today was a statement where they proved that they’re strong kids.”