Four words scrawled on the white board in the visitors’ locker room at Rio Tinto Stadium last weekend were something FC Dallas took to heart before they went out and eliminated defending champions Real Salt Lake:
“Prove the haters wrong.”
Doubt is a powerful thing in professional sports. There is perhaps no greater motivating factor than the opportunity to stick it to someone who didn’t believe in you.
Three of the conference finalists in these MLS Cup Playoffs are walking embodiments of disbelief, teams whose fans often didn’t believe in them. The critics may never fully disappear, but Dallas, San Jose and Colorado are now just 90 minutes from competing for an improbable championship.
A little more than a year ago, Schellas Hyndman questioned if he made the right decision to flee the comfy womb of Southern Methodist University – where he’d been a successful men’s college coach for 24 years – to transform a stumbling FC Dallas team into a winner.
He was up against it from the get-go. Only two head coaches have survived the college-to-MLS jump: guys by the name of Arena and Bradley.
Predictably, it didn’t start well. Over the first two months of 2009, Hyndman’s first full season in charge, FCD went 1-6-3, after the coach shipped out popular players like Juan Toja, Arturo Alvarez and Duilio Davino in order to remake the roster to match his vision. As the team drifted further away from competitiveness, the fans grew more and more restless.
Hyndman recalls the low point being a mid-2009 match against Kansas City when he spotted fans sitting in the stands at Pizza Hut Park with bags over their heads in protest (a match FCD ending up winning 6-0, incidentally, behind four goals from Jeff Cunningham and a brace from David Ferreira, both Hyndman acquisitions). The veteran gaffer admits he often wondered if he had made the right decision.
[inline_node:318567]“Never in my career have I questioned my abilities,” Hyndman recalled. “I’ve always found success. Now I’m in over my head, thinking maybe it was a bad choice.”
Slowly, though, Hyndman found the right mix. His team began to resemble the vision of what he had built at SMU.
“For the first six months, I was trying to establish a culture of winning,” he chuckled. “It took almost a year-and-a-half.”
Few are arguing now. Hyndman was named 2010 MLS Coach of the Year. FCD play perhaps the most attractive soccer in MLS. They’re historic, too, posting an MLS record 19-game unbeaten streak this season. And they’re closer than they’ve ever been to their first MLS Cup title.
Out West, San Jose Earthquakes general manager John Doyle says it hasn’t been easy building from scratch. These Quakes are just two seasons removed from an expansion year, but fans have been impatient and have dogged the first-time GM nearly every step of the way.
When he used the club’s spot atop the allocation list in 2008 for injury-plagued Peguero Jean-Phillipe, they flipped. When he let popular – yet unproven – youngsters Shea Salinas and Quincy Amarikwa go, they cried foul.
But Doyle and Quakes coach Frank Yallop have never stopped trying to make the team better. In each of San Jose’s three seasons since reforming, Doyle has made moves in-season, sometimes throwing caution to the wind, to make the team better.
When it’s worked, the results have been awesome – Darren Huckerby, Francisco Lima and Scott Sealy nearly helped San Jose into the playoffs in 2008. When it hasn’t, it’s been less inspiring – ’09 acquisitions Ramón Sánchez and Aaron Pitchkolan didn’t pan out, and midfield destroyer Andre Luiz just hasn’t been able to stay healthy.
Doyle says he can’t help but take it personally – one supporters group has often chanted his name attached to a none-too-flattering dirty word. But he says he’s never questioned the moves he’s made, no matter how hurtful the blowback sometimes was.
“You [make a move] thinking it’s going to work, hoping the player gets on a good run and that he doesn’t get hurt,” he said. “A good player doesn’t all of a sudden become a bad player. Either they don’t perform, they don’t adapt to the league or they get injured. Sometimes you’re just unlucky.”
[inline_node:316560]This time, Doyle finally made the right moves. He acquired savvy veterans Jon Busch, Sam Cronin and Tim Ward, who plugged pervasive injury holes almost seamlessly. Then he made the signing that got them over the hump: Geovanni, the club’s first Designated Player.
The Colorado Rapids may have it worst of all. Arguably no club in MLS has heard it worse from the fans: a perceived lack of spending, a supposed unwillingness to chase big names, no international friendlies planned at Dick’s Sporting Goods to grow the profile.
Managing director Jeff Plush, who’s lived through it for five seasons, has heard it all.
“The only thing that has really bothered me was that people suggested we didn’t care about winning,” he said. “I always say, ‘Criticize us for getting the results – that’s fair.’ We knew were going in the right direction. But when you don’t have results to fall back on, you can’t say anything.”
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This year, it’s finally paying off, and the team has been, finally, healthy. So much of the Rapids’ identity is tied up in chemistry – either guys who have been in Colorado their whole careers, or journeymen who have been integrated into the system.
Joint leading scorer Omar Cummings and right back Kosuke Kimura have been cultivated by the team since being drafted in 2007. Conor Casey was a hometown favorite who gave them bite without blowing the bank. Captain Pablo Mastroeni is having a career year at age 34 in his ninth season with the Rapids. And much like San Jose, the moves made by Plush and coach Gary Smith have been flawless.
“We lost Colin Clark and Jamie Smith to injury and we knew what we needed was a little more toughness,” Plush said. “We added that in Jeff Larentowicz and Brian Mullan. We needed more athleticism, and we got that with Marvell Wynne.”
Now, the Rapids aren’t just back in the playoffs for the first time in four years – they’re a game from their first return to MLS Cup since 1997.
“We enjoy our team,” Plush said. “It’s a young group of guys with a little bit of veteran leadership. We’re just happy to keep winning.”
In a postseason of improbability, the guys who have been doubted have risen to the top. It’s a guarantee that at least one of these teams will be playing in Toronto on Nov. 21; it’s a pretty decent chance that one of them will be lifting the MLS Cup when it’s all said and done, too.
So bring on the haters – they may be helping push someone to a title.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.