FC Dallas have climbed into the upper reaches of the MLS Western Conference table quietly. So quietly, in fact, as to prompt precious little of the title-contender buzz earned by several of those around them in the standings. And that’s probably just fine with first-year head coach Nico Estevez.
He did, however, give himself and his players scope to dream bigger as they officially clinched their spot in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs with a 1-1 draw at San Jose on Saturday night.
“What this group of players have done the whole season,” said Estevez in his postgame press conference, “coming from where they were coming last season, and responding the way that they have responded, being a team, having ups and downs, and responding every single time that we had some difficulties to get points, I think it's impressive. And I'm really, really proud of my players, really proud.
“But, we want more. We always want more. We don't get complacent and I think this team can do really good things ahead.”
Influential central midfielder Paxton Pomykal is one of several regulars to show revitalization under Estevez, boosted greatly by some much-deserved relief from his chronic injury woes of seasons past. On Saturday night Pomykal offered praise for the former US men’s national team assistant coach – dubbing him “the keymaster” – as well as the collective he has built.
“It's a good feeling, especially coming off last season and a little bit of a disappointing finish in where we were in the standings,” said Pomykal of playoff qualification after 2021’s underachievement. “So for this team to turn it around and play the way we have this year and get as many results as we have to be in the position we are, and not just making playoffs, but with two games in hand and kind of controlling our own destiny to hopefully have a home game – we're not on the fringe and trying to find our way in, so that's a really nice feeling.
“Proof’s in the pudding, he’s done a phenomenal job with the guys we have,” said the homegrown of Estevez. “To turn it around the way that we have, credit to him as well as the coaching staff as well as the medical staff, fitness guys, the guys that have come in, the guys that were here. We're a club that relies on everybody, down to, you know, massage therapists. So we can't just credit one guy or two guys, since we play as a team. [But] he's our coach and he's kind of the keymaster that puts all the pieces in position to help us succeed.”
With the Philadelphia Union routinely blowing the doors off opponents, LAFC awash in star power and Austin FC an inspiring story in their second year of existence, FCD might not be topping the league-wide discourse, at least not yet. A powerful argument in their favor, though, is that they’ve beaten and/or outplayed all three of those teams recently, with their only real blemish a 4-0 whipping sustained in Nashville on Aug. 22.
Recent history shows the power of confidence and momentum in the playoffs.
“We had a lot of examples through throughout the years, no? RSL, last year for example, they clinched on almost the last day and then they did a good run in the playoffs,” said Estevez, who also promised that “we will not place limits on ourselves” in an answer to a Spanish-language journalist.
“We've played [well] against very good teams. We beat Philly, we beat LAFC, we played really good against Austin. We played really good at home against Nashville – we didn't play good in their house, in their field, we had a bad game. We played really good against Minnesota.”
The North Texans have a 6W-3L-3D record against the rest of the West’s current postseason field this year. And with just three losses in 15 league games since the start of July, a couple of more decent results in their final two matches of the season will ensure that FCD are home for at least one round of the playoffs.
Having worked under Gregg Berhalter during some of the Columbus Crew’s postseason runs of the past, Estevez knows well how crucial that given the fine margins in that tournament.
“I remember when we were in Columbus, when we played against Atlanta [United in 2017], they were the favorites and we beat them in PKs. Also with when Wayne Rooney was playing in D.C. and we beat them in D.C. [in 2018],” he said.
“Of course you want to play to your fans, you feel comfortable in your home, you don't have to travel, and this is what we want to fight for. But I think when you are in the playoffs, anything can happen. It's just four games. It’s a run of four games and try to make every game at a time and be in a good position to keep advancing and keep moving forward.”