SANDY, Utah – Two days before the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals at Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas players playfully wished head coach Schellas Hyndman a happy 59th birthday by dressing in sumo diapers and matching white headbands with the word “Ninja” written across them.
On Saturday, Dallas made their 10th-degree black-belt karate master coach even prouder: They knocked off the defending champs with a thrilling 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium, advancing to the Western Conference final for the first time in 11 years by a 3-2 aggregate score line.
The fatherly Hyndman accomplished what four of his predecessors couldn’t do. And on Saturday night, he was one proud poppa.
“We’ve been training for nine months for this special game,” he said. “We’re been preparing ourselves, pushing ourselves, working hard. We’re a fit team; we do well on the road. Nine months. Anybody who knows anything about having a baby, it takes nine months.”
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The series win, however, isn’t some nascent moment. FC Dallas had become more and more dangerous as the regular season rolled on, including a 12-game unbeaten streak on the road and, last month, a record-breaking 19-game unbeaten streak overall.
Hyndman believes that his team has gotten stronger week by week, and that those collective experiences all came together in two dynamite performances against Real Salt Lake: a last-gasp 2-1 win in the first leg at home, then the decisive draw on Saturday.
The defending champs fought hard to play their way back into the game Saturday night and nearly drew even on aggregate in a thrilling finish that saw at least three near-misses by RSL that would have pushed the series to extra time.
“You saw what a great job Real Salt Lake did,” Hyndman said. “Hats off, they fought. It took a good performance to come away with the result we wanted. For us, it was a hard-fought match, not just from beginning of the game, but in preparation going into the game.”
While much of the talk in the week leading into the match was about the Rio Tinto fortress, where RSL haven’t lost since May of 2009 (a streak that still stands after Saturday’s result), Hyndman preferred to talk about “attitude over altitude,” as he put it.
As it turned out, FCD needed no extra motivation to beat the team that ended their 19-game unbeaten streak last month; all they needed was the idea of advancing.
“We talked about commitment,” Hyndman said of the week leading into Saturday’s game. “It’s always easier in words than in action. We tell the players if they play with their heart, the rest of body will follow.”
For the first time since 1999, FC Dallas have perhaps their best chance to follow their hearts all the way to their first MLS Cup title.