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The wildest team in the West

The Tweet and Lowdown:

Was FC Dallas’s late-season mad dash in ’09 a fluke? Or is there more magic ahead from Cunningham, Ferreira & Co. in 2010?

Setting the Scene:

It’s too bad FC Dallas doesn’t have some sort of promotional tie-in with nearby Six Flags over Texas, because 2009 was one serious rollercoaster. After a horrendous 1-6-1 start, Schellas Hyndman’s crew gradually found its stride by midseason. And that was <I>after</I> selling leading scorer Kenny Cooper to the German second division. Coop’s departure freed up all kinds of space in the final third of the pitch, and turned FCD into an attacking powerhouse. Thanks to the pace and talent of pint-sized Colombian playmaker David Ferreira and the high-scoring ways of eventual Golden Boot-winner Jeff Cunningham, Dallas won seven out of 10 down the stretch and forced its way back into the playoff race. That is, until a deflating 2-1 loss in Seattle on the final day of the season eliminated it from contention.

Heading into 2010, few changes were made to the roster. Hyndman hopes his side’s kick down the stretch was more than just a second wind, and he’s willing to bet the same group can get it done this time. They’ll have no problems scoring goals (they led MLS last season with 50), but the question is if the defense can hold -- its 47 goals allowed in ’09 was tied for second-worst in the league. And then there's this bizarre goalkeeper controversy...

Key Changes:

Players in: Kevin Hartman (Kansas City), Zach Loyd (North Carolina), Andrew Wiedeman (California), Jason Yeisley (Penn State), Eric Alexander (Indiana)

Players out: Dave van den Bergh (contract not renewed)

Technical Staff: GM Michael Hitchcock (fired)

Star Attraction: David Ferreira

Cunningham may get the glory, but he’d be nowhere without the 30-year-old Colombian, who enjoyed a sensational debut season in MLS in ’09. The diminutive speedster started all 30 games in the traditional No. 10 role, powering the Hoops’ up-tempo style and providing eight goals and seven assists. He can also get back on defense, too, which is something his team will need out of him. Once again, the club’s resident comedian will be counted on to lead the attack -- he may just be the most underrated player in the league.

Unsung Hero: Dax McCarty

A key member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad, the UNC alum has finally come into his own as a pro. After some friction last season with Hyndman (McCarty so hated his early assignment as a holding mid that for a time he wanted out of Frisco), the former No. 6 SuperDraft pick eventually found himself in his preferred central midfield role, where he flourished, notching three goals and six assists. McCarty, who made 27 starts in ’09, served as the perfect link to the attack and his distribution has gotten better and better. And get this: He’s still only 22.

Ready for Primetime: Brek Shea

A 6-foot-4 frame and teased-up bleach-blond hair make it difficult to hide—Alex Ferguson reportedly took an interest in him at one point—but the Bradenton Academy product may be the best-kept secret in Dallas’s system. With last season’s assist leader Dave van den Bergh out of the picture, the left wing is now Shea’s to lose. His combination of speed, crossing ability and skill on the ball is rare for a guy his size, and the club hopes he’ll learn to not get frustrated as often. Question is, can Hyndman manage the sky-high expectations for the 20-year-old native Texan?

Storylines to Watch:

How long can Cunningham continue to defy Father Time? The two-time Golden Boot winner will turn 34 this summer and is in fantastic shape, but to expect that he’ll dump goals in at the same rate as last season—16 goals in the final 14 matches—is foolish. More troubling, if he gets hurt, who will back him up? Hyndman may push wingers Atiba Harris or Marvin Chávez up top, but neither has proven effective there. The goals will come for Dallas, but the lack of depth is perhaps the biggest flaw in Hyndman’s 4-1-4-1 experiment.

Defense, however, will be key. Last year’s late additions of defenders Heath Pearce and Ugo Ihemelu and holding mid Daniel Hernandez helped—FCD’s goals allowed improved slightly after the All-Star break. Are they enough? Anthony Wallace, who is set for a breakout year, according to some observers, and rookie Zach Loyd can spell Pearce and Jair Benítez at wingback, but the depth chart gets thin in the middle after Ihemelu, George John and backup Kyle Davies.

Perhaps the most intriguing plot line coming out of Frisco, however, is the acquisition of iconic MLS backstop Kevin Hartman from the Wizards. The 35-year-old veteran holds every major goalkeeping record in MLS history and gets a fresh start after contract negotiations went south in Kansas City. There's just one problem: Incumbent Darío Sala wore the captain's armband for FCD last season and has been, at least when he's healthy, more or less indispensible for the club. Hyndman has said he wants competition at every position. Only one of these veterans will get the starting nod -- the battle to man the nets at Pizza Hut Park begins now.

What He Said:

“We feel like we can score anytime. The key is not giving up goofy goals. We’ll make one dumb mistake, and a team will score off one of its two shots on goal all game. That kills us.”

—Assistant Coach John Ellinger

If everything goes right:

FCD isn’t going to challenge for the top of the Western Conference, but it will challenge for a playoff spot. With Cunningham & Co. pouring in goals at Pizza Hut Park, the matches will be an entertaining, Wild West-style shootout. But can they break their hex as the only remaining original MLS club never to reach the championship game? That may be too big a task.