The Rise of FC Dallas: Depth and Desire

[MLS] There are a few surprise teams in MLS this year, yet not even those FCD fans thrilled by last year’s stirring finish that fell just short of a playoff spot could have foreseen what their team would do in 2010. In a fiercely tough Western Conference, FC Dallas is third behind last year’s MLS Cup finalists Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake. But Dallas has lost fewer games than those teams and anybody else in MLS, just two of 26 heading into this weekend’s match against Chicago.

True, it has tied more games (13) than it has won (11), but it has also posted impressive results like the 3-1 thrashing it dished out at Kansas City last week with both teams playing on just two days rest.

Marvin Chavez and Milton Rodriguez scored within the first 12 minutes and FC blunted most of what Kansas City could muster the rest of the way to win, 3-1. The role players did their jobs and to wrap up the win, the team’s leading goalscorer Jeff Cunningham notched his 10th and assist leader David Ferriera earned his 12th .

“The game plan going into every single game is to try and score early, especially if you can do that on the road,” says midfielder Dax McCarty, who had just recovered from a quadriceps injury. “That was definitely the case in Kansas City, to try and jump on them early, and see where their legs were. We knew they’d had a really tough game against Houston midweek. They exerted a lot of effort and it took a lot out of them physically. We like to think that with our depth and the amount of guys we can shuffle through we could certainly test them early, and we did.”

FCD won that game without starting central defenders Ugo Ihemelu and George John, captain Daniel Hernandez, left midfielder Brek Shea, and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. McCarty had returned to the starting lineup a few days earlier in a 2-2 tie with New England, with Ferreira leading the comeback after squandering a penalty kick in the first half.

Ferreira got another PK chance late in the match, buried it, then prompted a sequence in stoppage time to grab an equalizer. On the right side of midfield outside the penalty area, he played a ball to Eric Avila and ran forward to collect his first-time return pass to clip a volley to the back post, where Cunningham tucked it away.

“Last year, before I got here, we were in those kinds of games,” says Ihemelu, like Hernandez a product of Hyndman’s 24 years at SMU prior to taking the Dallas job in June, 2008. “Schellas told us after the New England game, ‘Last year, we wouldn’t have done that.’ That shows how much the players respond to each other and just grind it out. For the full 90 minutes we’re running and working for each other.”

With 46 points, FCD has already outdistanced last year’s mark of 11-13-6 (39 points).

“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,” said Hyndman. “Then remember last year we had that great run and came up a point short. The team that got in was Salt Lake [with 40 points], and they won it all, so that’s the example.”

Hyndman, one of the college game’s most respected coaches, had produced some remarkable teams and outstanding players at SMU, but never won a title. He nearly got the FC Dallas job when former Arsenal defender Steve Morrow was hired in November, 2006, and was the top choice of Clark Hunt, who played at SMU, but management instead hired Morrow. Nineteen months later, a hiring that many in Dallas had regarded as inevitable for nearly a decade finally occurred.

“There was so much talent at SMU,” said Hyndman. “You’re the only Division I school in the state, you’re going to get a good group of players no matter what. But I always tried to play a certain way. And I’d get criticized, 'they they’re not strong enough or they’re not this or that,' and we never won a national championship. We came awfully close. We didn’t win the championship, but at least, I think, we did it the right way.”

His preference for a technical, possession game took some time to instill, but with players such as outside backs Jair Benitez and Heath Pearce as well as Ferreira, Avila, Hernandez and Rodriguez, FCD can move the ball as well as any team in MLS. Schellas' two-year stint in the 1970s at the famed Sao Paulo club in Brazil whetted his appetite for passing, skill, and fluidity.

“That really put into my mind a mentality of how I wanted to play,” says Hyndman, whose practice of martial arts for more than 40 years is another fascinating facet of his personality. “If you look at everything I’ve done, whether it was at Eastern Illinois [his alma mater] or SMU, it was always a possession-oriented game. If you go into that mentality, you have to look for players who can do that.”

That process took some time, but by the end of last year, FCD had been radically transformed. A streak of four straight wins at the end of the season nearly edged it into the playoffs, but not quite.

“We’ve probably had the most roster turnover in the league since he’s been here but it’s all been for the greater good,” says McCarty, a 2006 draft pick out of North Carolina who had played all over the midfield and occasionally in the back line until Hyndman offered him the chance to win a central spot. “We haven’t made the playoffs the last two years and it was clear something needed to change.

“Every player knows what Schellas expects of him and every player knows the job he’s supposed to do. If you don’t do that job to the best of your ability there’s probably another guy on the bench waiting to take your spot.”

Avila and Eric Alexander have filled in for Hernandez and McCarty, center backs Zach Loyd and Kyle Davies and Brazilian newcomer Jackson Gonsalves have manned the middle spots, and former starter Dario Sala stepped back into the nets when Hartman -- the league's top keeper at the time with nine shutouts and a 0.62 goals allowed average -- suffered a knee injury thanks to Thierry Henry’s post-goal piledriver.

“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,” says Hyndman. “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.”

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