FRISCO - “How do you sum up how a team goes from being really good at the start of the year, legitimately being better over two legs against Pachuca, although the score didn't reflect it, to this?”
That was the question from Dallas Morning News beat writer Jon Arnold, echoing the sentiments of fans and MLS pundits alike. How can the reigning U.S. Open Cup champions and Supporters’ Shield winners fall from first place in the West at the end of July to Decision Day heartbreak and missing the postseason for the first time under head coach Oscar Pareja?
“We kept waiting for the better version of FCD to reappear, the one that pushed Pachuca so hard in CCL just a few months ago, the one that took Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup last year,” radio play-by-play voice and FourFour Two contributor Steve Davis said. “After all, it's basically still the same group. But for whatever reason, small dips in form, small shifts in mentality or whatever, that team just didn’t reappear.”
In reality, it’s not a singular point or a set of clearly defined reasons, but rather a culmination of factors that led to what became of the 2017 season for FC Dallas.
Playoffs From the Start
We’ll start with where it all began. It was no secret from day one of preseason that Dallas was going all-in on their inaugural appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages. The club took advantage of a strike among Argentina’s first division and inserted itself into the fire with 10 games in 10 days among the biggest names in South America, all in the name of CCL opportunity. It nearly paid off in the tournament, making relatively easy work of Arabe Unido and coming just minutes away from forcing extra time in a Semifinal Leg Two meeting in Pachuca. It definitely paid off, though, when the focus shifted back to the MLS schedule.
“They got off to a great start,” Arnold said of the early months of the 2017 campaign. “They were already together and winning games and other teams were playing their first 10 games of the season when FC Dallas was 10 games in, I think that's a factor.”
But the energy spent in Dallas' sprint out of the gate began to creep into the picture as other teams found their legs and slowly gained ground.
“I do think there was a wall that was hit because of it and look, let's face it, the remedy for success in MLS is that you don't have to play well at the beginning of the year and you just want to continue to build and build and build throughout the season,” TV play-by-play voice Mark Followill said. “After winning Supporters' Shield and the Open Cup last year, I think that Oscar wanted the team to go through this gradual build to be best prepared to play in MLS Cup, but at the same time there was also a tremendous emphasis placed on CONCACAF Champions League, understandably so because an MLS club has never won it.”
It was an issue compounded by an unforgiving schedule.
When you look back at the overall calendar for 2017, there were only two weekends that FC Dallas did not have matches: March 25-26 and April 1-2 - the second of which the club was five days into a rigorous week of preparation in Mexico for the second leg against Pachuca on April 4.
For the following 29 calendar weeks, Dallas played every single one of them, amassing 31 league and three USOC games along the way. After a heavy start to the year, not having a breather for more than seven months is no easy feat.
Couple that with this fact: FCD tied for the second fewest number of players hit the 1,000-minute mark in MLS this season, and tied for the fewest to hit 1,500 minutes. They also tied for third most players ranging between 1-500 minutes played. All that to say that the players who did play, played a lot. And the ones that didn’t, well, didn’t. Even before factoring in CCL and USOC, the roster found itself taxed towards the end of the season.
On the subject of players, that leads us right into our next couple items..
Coming off the most successful season in franchise history, FC Dallas appeared to not only have retained the same key pieces to 2016’s success, but added to that base.
The biggest change from the very start was the absence of Mauro Diaz, still recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon just over a year ago. The club brought in MLS veteran Javier Morales to fill the midfield creator role, but also had another option with DP forward Cristian Colman coming in and the ability to play with a two-striker look without Diaz in the short-term. The later proved the case early on, with Morales playing a diminished role until the very end.
When Diaz did return at the end of May and worked his way into a starting lineup in June, he understandably didn’t reach his previous form until late in the year.
“Let's face it, we watched Mauro this year and while he certainly had his moments, unfortunately - and I would have nothing to point to other than coming off a devastating injury - he hasn't been the same player,” Followill said. “In my years of being around that in the NBA have taught me how debilitating that injury can be and how difficult a road it is to come back from it.”
Newcomers Hernan Grana and Roland Lamah were the two long-term changes on opening day, Lamah brought in to fill the void of the mid-season departure of Fabian Castillo on the left wing and Grana coming in on loan late in the offseason after previous signing Jose Salvatierra, a regular starter at right back for the Costa Rican National Team, failed his entry physical and was released. Anibal Chala was brought in to bolster the left side of the back line, but a preseason injury and subsequent delayed recovery left Maynor Figueroa holding the same position he did in 2016.
“To me the new additions just never clicked,” Arnold said. “Of the new players, I think Grana worked, although he sort of faded. I don't think Lamah ever clicked, although he did score several times. Colman obviously never really fit in [to the picture]. Chala had bad luck with the injury. Morales was playing fine and getting minutes at the end, but I think they needed him at the start of the season, didn't really have him and ended up being fine without him.
“I guess for me, the story of why FC Dallas is in this position and what is different when you look at this year compared to winning the Supporters' Shield and winning the Open Cup is that they players they thought were going to make them a better team instead made them worse.”
Snowball Second Half
Coming into the season in prime form and boasting one of the best defenses in the league early on, trouble began creeping in in late May and into June, before the bottom truly fell out in late July.
The infamous 10-game winless run began at home, where Dallas boasted one of the best records over the previous two years, in a 4-0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The next week in Philadelphia, video review controversy became a reality in a 3-1 loss and then again in a 0-0 draw with the lowly Colorado Rapids a week later at home despite 28 shots. From there, it seemed to be one thing or another week-to-week that just compounded into a team at the end of the season that was vastly different mentally than the one we saw early on.
“One of the things that about a long season anywhere in the world in a domestic league is you have to avoid slipping on banana skins that are thrown out there at your feet along the way," Followill said. "FC Dallas slipped on two banana skins in August. You can't not beat Colorado when you have them at home and look, you can't be up 3-1 against Houston going into the final 30 minutes and not win that game. You have to get the three points there.
“To me, those two things are looming very, very large in terms of how damaging they were, not just in terms of the four points dropped, but also in the spirit because I just look at some performances lately and it just seems that they get down on themselves a lot more quickly than this team would've gotten down on itself in March or April or May.”
Coupled with the overall downturn of the team was the struggle of several key players when it mattered most. Kellyn Acosta and Matt Hedges both missed considerable time on international duty in May, July and Acosta in October after missing time with a nagging injury. Hedges, although playing in nearly every game over the last three months, just wasn’t the same reigning Defender of the Year Dallas was used to seeing, exacerbating overall struggles along the back line.
"I don't know if it's the call-ups or mental or what, but Matt Hedges and Kellyn Acosta - these guys need to be the leaders not only in the locker room but also on the field and I just haven't seen that from them [down the stretch]. I haven't seen them play well and I think that defensively if you look at the chemistry there, something happened," Arnold said. "Part of that is, I think, losing Hedges and [Maynor] Figueroa to call-ups, and also Walker [Zimmerman]'s injury...I guess as a defensive team, chemistry and understanding was a lot different and that led to a lot of goals being scored on them that this team wasn't giving up last year and they weren't giving up at the start of this year."
Both players echoed their own struggles with the monumental year in retrospective.
“It feels like it was a combination of things that weren't right sometimes,” Hedges said of the defensive struggles late in the year. “Our shape as a team was really out of whack at times. Individual performances sometimes weren't good enough, myself included. I had a lot of bad performances that put our team in bad spots. Next year, we just have to fix that.”
“It's been tough. It's been a long season full of travel, lots of games. More games than I'm used to,” Acosta said after Sunday’s match. “Sometimes you have to go through experiences like this to grow. For me to bounce back and forth with the club and to get that international taste has been beneficial for me.”
At the end of the day, the little things all added up, and it was too much to stop as the team fell further and further down the standings.
“I think everything that happened to this group over the last 18 months caught up with them, as we sometimes say,” Davis said. “When a couple of players slipped just a little bit in form, combined with a couple of them wearing down a little, too many of the ‘Ws’ turned into ‘Ds.’ And too many of the ‘Ds’ turned into ‘Ls.’ Once that started happening, a little dip in confidence compounded the problems and, well, you got the second half of 2017.”
So where does FCD go from hear looking to put it all back together in 2018?
For starters, not all was lost this season. Michael Barrios saw a breakout campaign on the wing, adding a new facet to his game and leading the team in assists. Jesse Gonzalez struck his claim on the top goalkeeping spot after nearly two seasons of competition with veteran Chris Seitz for that role. The Homegrown picked up nine shutouts in 29 games, including three in a four-game stretch in late September. Even Acosta’s opening half of the season had his name making waves nationally both for club and for country.
“The coaches worked with Barrios on his crossing -- specifically on the timing of them, on taking just a little more time to arrange them. That clearly paid off,” Davis said. “Gonzalez's game still needs some maturing, just as any 22-year-old goalkeeper's game would. But in my opinion, Jesse more firmly established himself this year as one of the league's top shot-stoppers. And of course Kellyn's emergence over the first half of the season as a U.S. national team regular and a difference maker in FCD's midfield was memorable.”
By and large, though, it’s going to be a vastly different team on the field at Toyota Stadium next season. Oscar Pareja was not shy about that on Sunday.
“We have had four seasons with this group. We have to sit down and evaluate,” he said. “There are things that need to change. The project is going to move forward. This year has been difficult.”
“The team will need some personnel updating, for sure,” Davis added. “In my opinion, FCD simply cannot go into 2018 with 33- and a 35-year-old first choices at outside back (Hernan Grana and Maynor Figueroa). And we have to look at this: In a match with everything on the line, FC Dallas started a converted center back (Atiba Harris). That shows us something went wrong in adding central defensive depth.”
Only time will tell what changes are coming during the longest offseason of Pareja's tenure, but one thing is for sure - the plight of 2017 will leave its mark on the FC Dallas teams of years to come, for better or worse.