By Paul Kennedy
There was not much separating the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas,
winners of MLS's Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively.
Both finished with 18-10-6 records for 60 points and won their conference titles by seven points over the second-place
team. The only thing that separated them was goal difference, the tiebreaker that gave the Red Bulls (62-43, plus-19) the edge over FCD (52-39, plus-13) for the 2015 Supporters' Shield.
Their seasons mirrored each other's. FC Dallas started 3-0-1, the Red Bulls were 3-0-2 after five games. Both slumped in May-June -- FC Dallas 0-3-3 over six games, the Red Bulls 0-4-1 over five --
but both pulled away from the pack over the last 10 games of the regular season -- FC Dallas went 7-2-1, while the Red Bulls were 7-3-0. FC Dallas had the best home record in MLS at 13-2-2, while the
Red Bulls were 12-3-2, behind only FCD and the LA Galaxy (12-2-3).
There are a lot of other similarities between the two teams that say a lot about how you go about building a winner in
MLS -- building it the right way.
The coaches of both teams are in their second head-coaching positions in MLS: Jesse Marsch
at New York and Oscar Pareja
at FC Dallas. Both hold dream positions.
Marsch coached Montreal in 2012, its first season in MLS, and left not because he didn't do a good
enough job with the expansion team, but because Impact owner Joey Saputo
didn't like Marsch's so-called American approach. At the Red Bulls, Marsch was in the
unenviable position of replacing the popular Mike Petke
and inheriting a team that had considerable success in 2013 (Supporters' Shield winner) and 2014
(Eastern Conference finalist), but Ali Curtis
, the Red Bulls' new sporting director, and Marsch came in with a clear vision of what they wanted to do.
Pareja's ties to Dallas go back to his playing career when he played eight seasons for the Burn (1998-2005). He was with FC Dallas for the launch of its academy and left and returned twice -- the
first time to work briefly with the U.S. U-17s in residency in Florida and the second time after coaching the Colorado Rapids for two years.
Both teams have relied on a core of players.
Pareja picked from a larger pool -- 17 players made 10 or more starts -- but all but three of them were with Dallas for Pareja's first season as head coach in 2014 so they knew his system and were
able to fill in at multiple positions as injuries and international callups mounted during the season.
Marsch went with a set lineup almost all of the season. Of his four new
, Mike Grella
and Sacha Kljestan
in midfield each started 30 or more games, while Kemar Lawrence
, the bargain signing of the year out of Jamaica, would have likely reached that total in starts but for commitments with the Reggae Boyz.
New York's only problem position was right back, where it lost second-year player Chris Duvall
in midseason with a broken
Both clubs stood out for their reliance on young Homegrown players at key positions. The Red Bulls' Matt Miazga
, 20, has developed into
perhaps the U.S. best center-back prospect an MLS club has ever produced. Pareja has gone two better, giving key roles to three academy products: 20-year-old keeper Jesse Gonzalez
, who won the starting job late in the season, and 23-year-old Victor Ulloa
and 20-year-old Kellyn
, who started together at central midfield for much of the season until Acosta's recent groin injury.
Neither club has relied on big-name signings. The Red Bulls went
low-budget after shedding the salaries of Thierry Henry
and Tim Cahill
after the 2014 season. Their highest-paid player
-- according to MLS Players' Union figures -- is Bradley Wright-Phillips
, who was rewarded for his 27 goals in 2014 with a bump to DP status at $660,000 in
guaranteed compensation. No one on FC Dallas makes as much as $500,000.
While other clubs have struggled to integrate expensive midseason signings into the starting lineup, both FC Dallas
and New York spent significant resources to sign Argentines during the summer transfer window but did not rush to break them into the starting lineup. Mike
has played so well for the Red Bulls that he's kept Gonzalo Veron
out of the starting lineup. Ezequiel
only recently became a starter in the Dallas midfield because of Acosta's injury.
It's a credit to the success of both clubs in putting their teams together that perhaps
their toughest task will be to keep them together. Miazga and Lawrence on the Red Bulls and Mauro Diaz
on FC Dallas rank among the most sought-after players in MLS. It's hard to imagine all four of them still be in MLS next season.