By Ridge Mahoney
A drought of nearly two decades without a trophy ended Tuesday night at Toyota Stadium when FC Dallas shook off the concession of an early goal to roll over New England, 4-2.
Those long, barren seasons dating back to the 1997 U.S. Open Cup final -- won by the Dallas Burn against D.C. United in a penalty-kick tiebreaker (5-3) after a 0-0 tie -- dominated much of the postgame discussion. A few references were also made to the 2007 final in the same stadium, won by the Revs against FCD, 3-2, which drew a crowd officially recorded as 10,618.
Tuesday night the game sold out, and most of the 16,612 in attendance celebrated not just a rousing victory but yet another step in the growth and maturation of a major-market team that on and off the field has been a straggler for much of its existence.
It started out in 1996 as one of three league-run teams and played its home games in the Cotton Bowl. Bought by Hunt Sports Group in 2002, it moved into its own stadium in 2005 and hosted back-to-back MLS Cup finals without playing in either one. Its first -- and to date, only -- appearance in an MLS Cup final ended with a 2-1 loss to Colorado in 2010.
For head coach Oscar Pareja, his players and the entire organization, the title culminates many years of work starting with the first team and extending all the way down to the youth setup. No team has signed more Homegrown players than FCD (15), and in the Open Cup final three of them – starting midfielder Kellyn Acosta, substitute midfielder Victor Ulloa and backup keeper Jesse Gonzalez -– made the game-day roster.
Yet along with grooming young players, Pareja -- who left his post as the team’s academy director to coach the Rapids, and returned in 2014 -- has shown myriad elements essential to building a winner. Those who regard FC Dallas as an ideal model for mid-market MLS teams might not realize the some of the same methods have already worked wonderfully in a team that entered the league much later but showed the way more quickly.
After a dismal, five-win expansion season in 2005, Real Salt Lake ascended to the ranks of perennial contender and viable business. Former owner Dave Checketts needed just five years to do the double of new stadium (Rio Tinto opened in 2008) and MLS Cup title (2009).
RSL broke new ground by establishing a player academy in another state, specifically Arizona, where the team has spent part of its preseason the past few years. Jordan Allen came to RSL by that route and also on the current roster is another Homegrown product, Danilo Acosta. Two others -- Sebastian Saucedo and Justen Glad -- are on loan.
Former head coach Jason Kreis preached “the team is the star,” and he assembled a core of players -- Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson, Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, and others -- of sufficient skill and commitment to beat foes endowed with greater resources and more glamorous names. Several of those players have moved on but under Kreis’ former assistant coach, Jeff Cassar, replacements are maintaining the tradition.
Pareja and technical director Fernando Clavijo are following a similar path with shrewd foreign signings and clever trades. Three of the four Open Cup goals were shared by midfielder Mauro Diaz, a former River Plate player signed by FCD as a 22-year-old in 2013, and forward Max Urruti, a part-time starter last year for MLS champion Portland who was signed via the Re-Entry Draft.
“The boys wanted to win, and Mauro led them,” Pareja said. “I’m very happy for him, because that’s the standard he can leave here with this club as a legacy.”
Since entering the league, Diaz has flashed the skill, instincts, and vision that prompted his signing by FCD but issues of fitness and consistency tainted his persona. He’s putting it together this season; in league play he leads the team with 11 assists and is fourth in goals scored with five. All five of his Open Cup assists were registered in the semifinal defeat of the Galaxy and the final.
“He was tremendous,” Acosta told MLSSoccer.com. “Same story every game for the whole year. When he’s healthy, he’s a game-changer for us. Today he showed it. He was all over the place. Defensively his work rate as well, he helped me and Carlos [Gruezo] throughout the game.”
Another offseason addition, that of Ecuadorian central midfielder Gruezo, might seem superfluous given the presence of Acosta and Ulloa, but managing the minutes of those players is among the reasons while FCD is atop the Western Conference as well as the Open Cup champion.
Like Kreis, Pareja values cohesion and chemistry higher than outright talent. All those elements, plus several more, must function together if a team is to succeed.
“I am very high on tactics and responsibilities toward the unit,” he said in an interview last December. “I always teach to the players that it doesn’t matter how much or how poorly you play individually, but the aspect that I pride most when I see soccer is how the unit behaves. It is one of my biggest pleasures to see a unit working together and the players being convinced about an idea and about concepts and fundamentals.”
New England’s early goal -- Gerson Koffie stole a ball in midfield and fed Juan Agudelo to score in the sixth minute -- only briefly fazed FCD, which equalized in the 15th minute when Urruti cushioned a Diaz feed and drilled his shot home. FCD exploited an injury to Koffie by throttling the Revs in midfield and were seldom troubled after piling up a 4-1 lead.
New England rejiggered its formation when Kei Kamara replaced Koffie, and again at the end of the first half by replacing Je-Vaughn Watson with left back Chris Tierney. FCD quashed the Revs’ attackers and carved open their back line time and time again. Defender Matt Hedges, who headed a Diaz serve for the winning goal, and Walker Zimmerman kept clean the goalmouth in front of keeper Chris Seitz.
Both teams have to move on quickly and resume league play this weekend. The Revs are in Montreal, FCD resumes its Supporters’ Shield quest in Yankee Stadium against New York City FC. Talk of a treble will significantly increase but not within the walls of the only eligible organization.
“We have got through a lot of tough moments in the season so far,” said Pareja. “Just three days ago we felt like we were playing in another final against Colorado. We lost an important game. The team bounced back tonight.
“The game was another example of them proving their character. They were able to come back in the game and score the goals and give us this time to celebrate. It’s the character of this team and it comes from many angles but if I had to give it one, it would be the team’s commitment to this franchise.”