DALLAS - At the end of the 2004 season, Dallas fans were scratching their heads in dismay as, for the second year in a row, the club had finished at the root of the Western Conference and failed to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
In his first full season in charge, Colin Clarke took stock of what pieces he had, although the end result might not have been what he and the club were looking for.
With the team heading into a new beginning, Clarke had some elements to build upon: Eddie Johnson led the league in goals and had suddenly become a lethal striker; a healthy Ronnie O'Brien had started to show his ability to take control of a game.
An overhaul was still needed, and Clarke set about to rebuild his team during the winter. Richard Mulrooney was acquired in a fortuitous trade, Greg Vanney was signed as an allocation - then in another fortunate circumstance, Landon Donovan returned to MLS, paving the way for Carlos Ruiz to come to Dallas.
But that wasn't enough. Out of the gate, Clarke set out his team in an adventurous attacking formation, designed to provide Johnson and Ruiz the space they needed while also giving O'Brien a free-ranging platform to build the FC Dallas attack. With Mulrooney in a driving role alongside Simo Valakari in midfield and Vanney anchoring a young backline, the club has exploded to start the season.
"I think there is a lot made of systems - I don't buy into it too much. I think we have 11 players on the field working very hard for each other," said Clarke. "You can put the system down for whatever you want - 4-4-2, 4-3-3, whatever you want to put it down as - it doesn't really matter at the end of the day as long as they are working hard for each other. That's the main thing."
The guy who has it all in front of him, veteran goalkeeper Scott Garlick, shares the same philosophy as the FC Dallas boss.
"The most important thing is you know you can talk about systems, you can talk about 4-4-2, 3-5-2, whatever it is. I think ultimately what we are doing well is we are defending well as a group, starting from the forwards and working all the way down," Garlick said.
Still, much of the accolades go to the Hoops head man for his insight and implementation.
"You know I think the team as a whole - the guys that have been in and have come in - have done a fantastic job. I think it is a tribute to everybody from the players to the coaches. They have picked the guys through discovery and draft picks," Garlick said.
While the big-name players have been the most noticed additions, Clarke has also made some finds that have flown under the radar. Ecuadorian Roberto Mina and rookie Abe Thompson (University of Maryland) have both made their Hoops debut in recent weeks and have contributed to the club's No. 1 ranking in MLS in goals scored (22).
Unheralded rookie Aaron Pitchkolan (University of West Virginia) and former youth international rookie Drew Moor have come in on the defensive side - along with second-year man David Wagenfuhr, little-used in his first season - as FCD have allowed the second-fewest goals in the league.
Mina and Pitchkolan have each played four games, and each has one goal and an assist. Thompson scored a goal in his first start for the squad, and Wagenfuhr began the season as the starting left back until suffering an injury.
The FCD manager has changed the mindset and the psyche of the team, overcoming obstacles such as an extensive number of away games, injuries, national team call-ups and stadium woes. But that hasn't sidetracked the coach.
"I don't step on the field, I just try to get them prepared," Clarke said.
All in all, the club's management and players have given the Hoops fans real hope that the dream could be realized, a chance to play in front of the home fans for the MLS Cup at the new FSEC in Frisco in November.
If the regular season were to end today FCD would have the best record in MLS. At no time in their history did the Burn ever contend for the Supporters' Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record in MLS.
"I'd like to take the lion's share but I can't. Colin has been the chief evangelist with the mindset," said FC Dallas general manager Greg Elliott.
Ron Goode is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.