The hoopla surrounding the heralded strike force of FC Dallas -- Carlos Ruiz, Eddie Johnson and Ronnie O'Brien -- and the side's six goals in its two previous matches has helped to mask the inexperience of its defense, three of which are practically MLS rookies in the four-man backline.
Against a quality opponent on the most spacious pitch in MLS, the Dallas rearguard was exposed in a 2-0 defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy, perceived to be the principal contender with FCD for the Western Conference crown.
Apart from seasoned centerback Greg Vanney, who is adjusting to a position different from the left back role he's been more accustomed to in recent seasons, FCD trotted out a last-line corps of center back Clarence Goodson, left back David Wagenfuhr and right back Bobby Rhine. The first two combined for 12 MLS career starts entering Saturday, while Rhine has been a forward throughout his MLS career before this year. It showed.
"I thought we didn't start the game well," FC Dallas coach Colin Clarke said. "We gave up a bad goal. We didn't do well on the free kick on the second one. The first half's done the damage. I thought in the second half we could have had five or six goals."
Vanney broke down the defensive inefficiencies as if he was a pundit commentating on the match while saying that his trust for his fellow backliners' ability to cover and position themselves will be a learning process.
"What they did a good job of and we did a horrible job of was that, on the outside, Cobi Jones and (Guillermo Ramirez) did a great job of finding the space between our outside backs and our wingers," Vanney said. "By the time our outside backs got there, it's too late to give pressure. They were just dropping balls in there for them. The first goal came off exactly that."
Nine minutes in, Jones found space on the right with the ball and dumped a centering ball over the Dallas defense for Landon Donovan to race onto and expertly tuck away from inside the penalty spot.
The Galaxy's second goal, a half hour later, came off a free kick in which Jovan Kirovski, rather than laying off for a blast from Ramirez 32 yards out, fooled most of the Dallas players behind the ball and in the wall by lofting the ball into the right side of the penalty area. Tyrone Marshall rose above a late-arriving Vanney to square a header across for Peter Vagenas to finish.
"I knew exactly what was going to happen. As I went to jump for it, (Marshall) was already over the top of me," Vanney said. "The youth in the back kind of got us. I trust the guys. They're good players. But we played here two weeks ago (against Chivas USA) and this field is so big, sometimes I get the sense that our spacing is so bad and I got to shift around. Trusting those guys is something that's coming.
"The beauty and beast of the MLS season is that you don't have to be good right now. Ultimately, right or wrong, I feel the Western Conference is going to come down to FC Dallas and the Galaxy. We were eager to play."
Meanwhile, only about a third of the FC Dallas strike force was consistently visible in the match. Carlos Ruiz, in his emotional return to face his former team for the first time, did much running but couldn't produce any magic with the ball inside the penalty area.
"I was very excited. I had a chance to score in the first half and one in the second half," a gracious Ruiz said. "The defense for the Galaxy did very well. I feel very good because I see the Galaxy fans in The Home Depot Center again. It's, like, emotional because I was here for three years. I think (they're) the best fans in the league, the Galaxy fans." Eddie Johnson, with no shots on target, was a non-factor throughout as Galaxy coach Steve Sampson concentrated on net letting him turn on goal with the ball at his feet. Ronnie O'Brien was banished to the flanks and never made an impression while being well covered by Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant.
"We didn't pass the ball well in the first half," Clarke said. "They closed us down well in the first half."
"They came out to play in the first half," Johnson added. "We know we went out in the second half and created chances. We knew this was going to be a test and this would show us where we are. Two years ago, we would've put our heads down (after a two-goal deficit), but we didn't."
The FC Dallas boss gave Ecuadorian international striker Roberto Mina, whose signing was announced Thursday, a run out in the 76th minute and believes he is a player worthy of starting up front, despite FCD already having a crowded front line. Perhaps Clarke will reconfigure his lineup, and O'Brien could be a candidate to drop into a wing slot in the midfield.
"I wanted to give him some time, get a feel for it," Clarke said. "He's going to be fighting for a spot."
Damian Secore is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.