FRISCO, Texas – It was nearly déjà vu at Toyota Stadium on Sunday night.
After Fanendo Adi scored a decisive goal for Portland in the 54th minute, FC Dallas faced almost certain elimination from the 2015 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. And yet, the home team mustered enough energy to stage a furious rally to potentially save their season.
Dallas scored two goals in a span of five minutes to transform what seemed like an impossible task into a glimmer of hope. At that point, they only needed one goal in the final 20 minutes to force extra time.
“Here we go again,” Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja said after the game, when asked what he thought about the moment at which Dallas had to mount their rally. It felt similar to three weeks ago in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals, when the team faced the same task against the Seattle Sounders.
“I saw the energy flow there when we scored our second goal," he said after the game. "And I saw Portland get on their heels and didn’t see much energy for them defensively.”
But unlike many moments in 2015, in which FC Dallas climbed what seemed like an impossible mountain, Sunday night’s was simply too steep to overcome.
The deficit began in leg one of the Western Conference Semifinals, after they gave up a crucial goal in stoppage time that forced them into then needing to earn a two-goal victory while only allowing one or fewer goals in the process.
And even after Adi’s opening goal in the second half, the team kept its confidence and never once hung their heads.
“We just have a ‘never say die’ attitude,” Dallas forward Tesho Akindele said. “It’s kind of what our coaching staff put into us. Oscar [Pareja] talked about it before the game: ‘No matter what happens, don’t panic. If we’re down a goal with ten minutes left, don’t panic, and have faith in it.’ And I think we did.”
Tactically, Pareja made a series of substitutions that proved effective. After Ryan Hollingshead initiated the rally in the 69th minute with a superb strike, Blas Perez scored a header off a Mauro Diaz free kick to resuscitate Dallas’ hopes of advancing. (Perez had entered the game for David Texeira in the 66th minute.)
Pareja even inserted Michel into the game in the 86th minute, directly on a corner play, in order to give Dallas a more potent set piece option. With the Brazilian’s left foot giving Dallas four set piece chances in the waning minutes, Pareja went for broke and threw the kitchen sink toward the Timbers' half.
“We decided to throw one more player there and we had some options, especially when we got the crosses and set plays,” Pareja said. “But at that point, the game could go our way or we could just give up something in the back because it was way too risky for us, and we knew it. But it was worth it just to put the game that way, and we almost [won it].”
Almost, of course, was the operative word. While proud they managed to make something out of seemingly nothing in the second half, the team still expressed serious disappointment in the locker room.
“Right now, it definitely stings,” Akindele said. “You can’t really think of anything other than, ‘Damn it, we lost.’”
Added midfielder Victor Ulloa, “We definitely feel the pain. It hurts so much to lose it like this.”
The history books will show 2015 as a season in which FC Dallas fell just short of reaching its second-ever MLS Cup, as a team that finished No. 1 in the Western Conference, just a tie-breaker away from winning the Supporters' Shield.
And Pareja said, after the match, that he considers the season a success because of the way his young team managed to grow through so many rough patches. Even if they weren't able to hoist a trophy after all, they still managed a franchise-best 60 regular season points.
“The character they have developed during the year within the group, it is nothing but that spirit of fighting through the difficult moments,” Pareja said. “That’s a great foundation for this franchise and for this club. They have proven one more time that despite the tough moments, we were fighting and tried to bounce back. Today was a reflection of that.”