FRISCO, Texas - For FC Dallas, their road swing to California - the club's longest trip since the opening of Pizza Hut Park - comes with a new and somewhat unfamiliar feeling. After bolting out of the starting blocks, holding first place in the Western Conference for much of the first half of the season, the Hoops hit a roadblock with 10 consecutive league games without a win.
But now, after back-to-back wins at home, FC Dallas have secured a playoff spot for the first time in three seasons. As they head to face the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy in regular season games - with a meeting against the Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup Final in between - the upcoming games are about building momentum toward the MLS Cup Playoffs.
FCD have relied mostly on veterans such as Greg Vanney and resurgent youth from the likes of Ramon Nunez to rejuvenate the team and clear the path for the playoffs. "For us right now the focus is definitely going to be on results," said defender Greg Vanney. "If we can come out and definitely put together a good performance and do all the things we need to do then you gain a little psychological effect with the fact that you are going into the Open Cup Final on Wednesday.
"But, we go a game at a time right now since it is the end of the season. We just need to focus on taking another step forward with our team and making ourselves better and get prepared for the final push in the playoffs."
The return of Vanney, after missing games off and on through the middle part of the campaign due to national team duty, has helped a defense that was starting to get increasingly exposed.
"We have been a team that hasn't had three-quarters of our salary cap for a large part of the season but we just keep battling and keep working. It's a compliment to everyone in there," said FCD goalkeeper Scott Garlick. "We have 28 guys and that's why you have rosters like that because you are going to have injuries and things throughout the season."
Said FCD coach Colin Clarke: "Everybody is starting to raise their level and that comes with the confidence we've got - starting to get that belief back again." At one point, the FC Dallas defense had the second-best goals against average in the league. Over the recent weeks that record has tumbled to ninth in MLS.
"I think a lot of it has to do with concentration. For the most part we are getting better, in the last couple games, in terms of getting on the same page and making decisions on defending better as a team in the run of play," Vanney said. "The goal we gave up last week against Salt Lake was a set piece goal. We gave up a few of those in the last couple of games. We have to challenge headers and we are clearing out balls that fall to the ground or fall to our feet."
If there is a concern heading into the final push toward the postseason, it's the question of the health of lethal strikers Eddie Johnson and Carlos Ruiz. Johnson is suffering from a stress fracture in his foot that has all but ruled him out of the rest of the regular season - and possibly the entire postseason - while Ruiz has missed two games with a hamstring strain and is out for the game in San Jose. "We need to get sharper on the attack and the final third, because when it comes closer to the playoffs and obviously the Open Cup game next week, the difference is going to be one play here or there - being able to finish that one chance or making that big play on the defensive end that keeps us in the game," Vanney said.
But Clarke's men have seen the emergence of a bunch of "kids" - 20-year-old Arturo Alvarez and 19-year-old Ramon Nunez providing incisive service from the flanks, and 20-year-old Roberto Mina with a nose for goal. Mina became the first-ever player in Dallas club history to hit for multiple goals in back-to-back games in a pair of wins last week.
"I think Colin [Clarke] has given me a lot of confidence and that is helping me. I am playing really happy and real confident," said Nunez.
If FCD want to get deep in the playoffs, they will need two things: the attacking thrust that once inspired fear in the hearts of the opponents, and the continued defensive attentiveness.
"Each game has it's own meaning from here on out the closer we get to the postseason the more important those games become," said Vanney.
"Right now in a way we kind of have a free six games till the end of the season where we work on getting ourselves right and being on the same page. Therefore, we can make the push that we need to make a run in the playoffs and win the championship."
Ron Goode is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.