FRISCO - 16 years ago, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux taught us that chicks dig the long ball and the same rings true for soccer. While a goal-saving tackle or a key clearance might preserve a victory, it's the goals that get the headlines.
However, as good as the FC Dallas offense has been recently, with a 2.125 goals per game average since the World Cup break good for second in Major League Soccer, the Dallas defense has rather quietly been spectacular. In fact, the .625 goals against average since returning from the World Cup on June 28th in Columbus is far and away the best in MLS, well above second-best Real Salt Lake with a .900 GAA in the same time span.
"I think it’s been our organization that has really improved and I think the whole team has kind of embraced the mentality that we need to defend as a team and attack as a team," Matt Hedges said about the defensive improvement. "That’s been pretty vital for us because I think you see the work rate from the guys up top defending and that’s really helpful for us because if you can win the ball higher up the field, we can attack and if we don’t then we can stay compact in our half and make it really difficult for teams to break us down."
The defensive numbers really have been staggering over the last two months since returning from the World Cup break. Of the five goals allowed by FCD in their eight matches, two came from contentious penalty kick decisions in Vancouver and Frisco, while another was the deflected effort by RSL right at the end of Friday's game. That leaves just two honest-to-goodness goals scored by opposition in the last eight games dating back to June 28th.
"It does [give me pride] because you can see our goals against isn’t going up and then you see other team's passing ours and we see that," said Hedges. "We just want to keep getting better and better and hopefully move into the top third in the league because I think if we can do that we can make a deep run in the playoffs."
One major switch in recent times has been the move of traditional right back Zach Loyd to center back. While the move was originally necessitated due to injury, the combination of the two UNC men in the middle has been a revelation. The combo has been nearly unbeatable together and combined with the athleticism of Je-Vaughn Watson at right back, proved to be a formidable unit across the back line.
"The communication has been really good," Hedges said about why things work so well with the pair. "I think me and Zach have always clicked on the field when we play next to each other and it’s showing that we communicate well and know where each other is going to be. I know his habits and he knows my habits and it’s definitely a good surprise that it’s clicked together so quickly."
When you ask the guys, another key to it all has been repetition and work by not just the four "defenders" but a mentality of eleven defenders on the field working together for the common goal.
"This team has evolved in the last month and a half and everyone is working to make the unit solid," said head coach Oscar Pareja. "All that comes together and you can take out the context of four defenders because it’s the whole team and that’s a better point than anything."
When you can combine the type of offense FC Dallas has been putting out all season with the league-best defense over the last two months, you get a team that hasn't lost since May 31st and looks poised for their first playoff appearance since 2011.
"[We're] not nine points down trying to get into the playoffs," said Hedges who has contributed a few "long balls" in 2014 with three goals scored. "We’re nine points up thinking 'hey we’ve got a chance at the supporters shield.' It’s definitely nice to be that way."