Absent big names, hype, FC Dallas explain why they're MLS Cup contenders

FC DALLAS - Celebration after Ziegler goal - against Atlanta

FRISCO, Texas — After a brief stumble of two losses that set off the “summer swoon” alarms, FC Dallasreturned to winning ways against Minnesota United last week, maintaining their three-point lead atop the Western Conference.

Dallas were expected to have a rebuilding year, but found themselves off to another hot start that has yet to really slow down. The North Texans put together two consecutive 60-point seasons in 2015and 2016; both ended with postseason defeats to eventual MLS Cup winners from their own conference.

So what sets this year’s edition of FCD apart from the rest of the Western Conference, and makes them a championship contender?

They're tied for 10th in MLS in goals scored, with Roland Lamah leading Dallas in both goals (eight) and assists (five) by active players. Leaguewide, he's tied for 26th and 46th overall, respectively, in those categories.

The Texans do boast one of the league's tightest defenses, but center back Reto Ziegler looks further up the field when describing the differences that set FC Dallas apart in the West.

"At high level, it's details," said Ziegler. "We can still improve defensively but our strength has been offensively, with the ball. We try to create many actions with the ball on the ground, and we play quite nice football. We are aggressive without the ball, and if everybody performs well, we can beat anybody in this league."

Head coach Oscar Pareja has shot down any talk of MLS Cup with the statement that making the playoffs is the first goal, then securing a first-round bye. After those aims are realized, he'll be willing to think about Major League Soccer's title match, and Ziegler is no different.

"I think for most of the games this season we are a high-performing team," explained the former Juventus and Tottenham defender. "We are strong, especially away and against the bigger teams, but the season is not finished yet. We have 10 more games until the playoffs, and our goal is the playoffs first."

Dallas fell victim to the worst second-half collapse in MLS history last year, and back-to-back losses to San Joseand Seattle earlier this month prompted talk of a repeat. This year, the FCD locker room is confident of learning not only from last year's mistakes, but also looking to the more recent struggles as they look to stay on track.

"We took our lessons, especially in the home game against San Jose," said Ziegler. "I think it was a game we had to win, we could have won. We saw that if we don't fight, if we don't concentrate, if we play too slowly, we can lose [to] any team. We took our lessons and I'm sure it will not happen again. If we lose, it will only be because we are not ready."