After two long years without postseason action, FC Dallas returns to the MLS Cup Playoffs on Saturday when the take on the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of their Western Conference Semifinal Series in Denver.
The last time Dallas made the playoffs, they lost to the Rapids in the conference semis after being favored going into the series. An eerily similar situation awaits the Hoops this season as they are again favored. FCD finished in second place in the West, three points ahead of the Rapids, and went undefeated against Colorado during the regular season, winning twice and tying the other two contests.
"Yeah, it's nice, they got to the playoffs the first year I got here and haven't been there since," said Ronnie O'Brien. "That's where you make your name, no other way of looking at it.
"That's where the team gets its reward and the players get their individual awards -- doing well in the playoffs, taking your team on your back. So hopefully a couple of us can do that and go a decent way into the playoffs."
FC Dallas head coach Colin Clarke has made some changes to his backline in the past two games, putting Steve Jolley on the right side of the back four, adding stability and experience with the central defense pair of Greg Vanney and Clarence Goodson.
"The back four were very solid for most of the game against Kansas City," said Clarke. "We'll see how things go coming into playoff time."
For most of the campaign, Jolley was a reserve center back -- though he started in nearly half the games with injuries, national team duty and suspension affecting Vanney and Goodson.
After an almost weekly change at the wingback positions throughout the season the stability over the last few weeks is due in part to the addition of Jolley. Bobby Rhine filled the role for the majority of the season, but the converted striker has been moved farther forward in Clarke's 4-5-1 system.
"You've got a lot of experience," said Jolley of the backline. "I used to play that position, I used to play next to it so I know what needs to be done. Hopefully over the last couple weeks I've been able to allow the coaches to see what I can do at that position in terms of the playoffs.
"I think I offer some defensive stability, but at the same time I can get forward, so we'll see."
Another key facet to the team's improved defense over the past two seasons has been Simo Valakari. The Finnish international provides a rugged screen in front of the back four, where he really provides a connection between the defense and attack. Valakari will make his playoff debut for the Hoops in his second year in MLS.
"Where I come from, hockey is a big sport," said Valakari. "They always have playoffs, and I always wondered how would it be in soccer and now I can experience it. It's a nice time of the season -- I'm really enjoying it."
Scott Joiner is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.