At the beginning of the 2013 MLS season, FC Dallas surprised fans and pundits with their quick start. After the first month of the season, Dallas had a league-leading 12 points with four wins and a single loss. By the middle of May, Dallas still led MLS with 24 points from 12 games, but the trend did not continue. Somehow, FC Dallas didn’t even make the playoffs in 2013.
Fortunes can reverse quickly in MLS, where the league’s oft-maligned parity makes virtually every match a toss up. Dallas ended 2013 in next to last place, with only Chivas USA finishing below them in the Western Conference.
Fast forward to 2014, FC Dallas is baffling critics once again, off to an even more scintillating start than last season. Dallas is one of only two undefeated teams in MLS with four wins and a draw (Real Salt Lake is the other undefeated team with two wins and three draws). Dallas has also scored a league-leading 13 goals.
FC Dallas definitively answered critics who chalk up their early season success to luck and/or their opponents’ early-season sluggishness with Saturday night’s 4-1 defeat of Houston Dynamo in Houston. Before Saturday night Houston had not allowed a goal at home this season and Dallas had only won once before in Houston (in ten attempts). Houston is a notoriously tough team and place to play; yet Dallas completely dismantled the Dynamo with a first half goal from Michel (a penalty conversion), a second half Houston own-goal, and two goals from midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson.
Critics also point out that three of Dallas’ first five games have been at home, but these have not been pushover wins. Among them are 3-2 and 2-1 defeats of Montreal and Portland respectively (both teams that made the playoffs last season). Then there is Dallas’ gritty 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City, another of the toughest places in MLS to earn points.
Considering the team’s total meltdown last year, FC Dallas fans have to remain cautiously optimistic at this point, but the team seems better equipped to remain a contender this season.
For starters, the team has new leadership. Schellas Hyndman resigned as head coach just before the end of last season. Though Hyndman led FC Dallas to their only MLS Cup Final in 2010 (where they lost to Colorado), the team lacked cohesion, discipline, and bench depth last year. Former FC Dallas player and Colorado Rapids’ head coach Oscar Pareja is Hyndman’s replacement and there is a renewed energy about the club since he took the reins.
Personnel-wise, Dallas has perhaps more depth than the club has ever had. Jamaican international Je-Vaughn Watson has become an indispensable midfielder under Pareja, scoring three goals in the last two games. Backup goalkeeper Chris Seitz has stepped in admirably for Raul Fernandez who is still recovering from a post-season hernia operation (Fernandez was the only FC Dallas player to make the MLS All-Star game last year). Third year center back Matt Hedges continues to make a case for himself as a future U.S. national team defender, anchoring a back line that is still missing its other stalwart, the injured George John. Hedges’ partner in central defense, Stephen Keel, has been excellent filling in for John in all five matches so far.
Offensively, Blas Perez continues to be a handful at striker and Fabian Castillo terrorizes teams with his remarkable speed on the wings (they have two goals each this season). Knitting it all together is 23-year-old Argentinean midfielder Mauro Diaz, who joined the team last July, but only made sporadic appearances for the rest of the 2013 season. Fans saw glimpses of his rumored creativity last year, but he never gained traction in Hyndman’s lineup. Under Pareja, however, Diaz has been one of the best players in MLS this season (he was just named the league’s Player of the Month for March). With sticky ball control in tight spaces, terrific vision, pinpoint passing accuracy, and quick-trigger shooting ability, Diaz is MLS’ Messi.
The next two games will tell us a lot more about this FC Dallas team, with home games against Seattle Sounders and the revamped Toronto FC. But based on what we’ve seen so far, don’t expect FC Dallas to fade out of the playoff picture like they did in 2013.