Sham: Ruiz, Mulrooney, Pitchkolan?
Roughly a third of the way through Major League Soccer's season, things are going just as expected for the Dallas franchise.
Coming into this season, President and General Manager Greg Elliott and the execs at Hunt Sports Group saw a need for change. Big, sweeping change, and that was supposed to result in success.
The changes have been as sweeping as you can get. The team's name, from the Burn to FC Dallas. New stadium, opening in Frisco August 6th. New uniforms to go with the new name. And maybe most important in the short term, new players.
So after 10 games, FC Dallas leads the Western Conference and is off to the best 10-game start in franchise history. They've only lost once. All as predicted.
To a cast that included U.S. international goal-scoring star Eddie Johnson, MLS Best XI midfielder Ronnie O'Brien, 2004 team MVP Simo Valakari and a pair of top-shelf veteran goalkeepers, Elliott and manager Colin Clarke made some savvy, spectacular additions: U.S. international defender Greg Vanney, goal-scoring sensation Carlos Ruiz, championship midfielder Richard Mulrooney, rookie phenom Aaron Pitchkolan ...
Pardon? Come again, please? Aaron what was that you said?
If a two-and-a-half-game first impression means anything, get used to it. Twenty-two-year-old Aaron Pitchkolan may not have arrived in Dallas with the portfolio of the other newcomers, but he has certainly opened some eyes. And he's furrowed some brows, not to mention causing some heads to be scratched.
For those who have not been paying close attention, Pitchkolan got his first taste of MLS action in the first half of a Wednesday, May 18 encounter with Colorado at the Cotton Bowl. The football club was starting its first game without Mulrooney, arguably the quarter-season team MVP whose campaign had ended with a knee injury four days earlier in San Jose. Against the Rapids, starting midfielder Carey Talley went down early with what turned out to be a broken rib. To the surprise of almost everyone not on the team bench, and a few who were, the call went to the tall, lanky rookie from the Denver suburbs. That night and in the next two games, Pitchkolan has made Clarke look pretty smart.
"He had been doing well in training and the reserve games," the skipper shrugged. "We'd been looking for the time to get him in. He's taken his chance and so far he's done well with it. I'm not surprised."
Pitchkolan is, and he isn't. "They took me aside the Monday after Richard got hurt in San Jose," he recalled after a recent training session, "and told me to get ready. They told me to step up and get ready for some playing time." No one, though, expected Talley's injury, or that the playing time would be so extensive so quickly.
And no one could have anticipated what happened the next Saturday, when Pitchkolan made his first start in Los Angeles against Chivas USA. No one, especially Pitchkolan, expected him to redirect a first-minute Ramon Nunez shot into the net for his first goal, or to pick up an assist later. Carey Talley may have been Wally Pipp-ed.
The January MLS Superdraft was a nightmare to Pitchkolan, who finished his college career at West Virginia after following his coaching staff from the University of Tampa. He wasn't selected, and had to wait around for the February supplemental draft, when Dallas took him in the second round.
"When I wasn't taken the first time," he recalls, "I thought, 'Oh, man.' It was hard times from the combine in L.A. to not getting picked to waiting for the supplemental. I just tried to stay in shape and hope for a chance. This whole thing has been a little unbelievable. I always knew I could do it, but I'm so grateful to these guys for giving me a chance. This is a great team to be on right now."
Aaron Pitchkolan is already a testament to hard work and staying ready. The best, everyone believes, is yet to come.
Just as they had it figured all along.
Brad Sham is in his eighth season doing play-by-play for FC Dallas television broadcasts.