From 2011 to 2014, the LA Galaxy carved out a period of dominance that has little equal in modern MLS history, winning two Supporters' Shields and three MLS Cup titles. The 2011 campaign in particular set a standard for holistic dominance, as Bruce Arena & Co. won 19 of their 34 games in the regular season – at one point going 14 straight games unbeaten – capturing the Shield with a plus-20 goal differential before going a perfect 4-0-0 in the playoffs.
That glory served to obscure the season before it, however. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Galaxy’s 2010 as a necessary growth point. The astronomical back-to-back 1.97 points-per-game totals the Galaxy put up those two years had never been accomplished and hasn’t since.
The fact that LA were embarrassed 3-0 by FC Dallas in the 2010 Western Conference Championship only upped their resolve. The letdown of 2010 was hugely influential on Arena and the Galaxy – so much so that they ran out and basically did it again, only this time they won the Cup and skewered the disappointment into the ground. It was, by my estimation, the most impressive two-year run by any team since the Designated Player rule ushered in the modern era of MLS.
It’s happening again. Or at least we’re on that track.
Say hello to 2017 FC Dallas, a side that can’t seem to lose. Through comebacks, shootouts, defensive wars of attrition and outright blowouts, FCD have taken eight different paths to its eight positive results to start the year. The club is 5-0-3 out of the gates, the league’s only unbeaten and a stylishly adaptive one at that.
Against the Portland Timbers’ pace-setting attack, FCD managed to uncage their hounds at an equal pace and drew 2-2. Against Sporting KC’s rugged defense, Dallas have already managed a scoreless draw and a 1-0 win.
Are FCD one of those perennially underrated franchises routinely passed over for the glitz of the coasts? I’ll leave that sort of determination up to others. But in the Dallas of the last two years I see the kernels of a run every bit as impressive as what the Galaxy pulled off half a decade ago. And this time, It’s far more sustainable.
LA’s table-setting 2010 is a fairly good way to look at FCD’s enormous, yet ultimately stinging 2016. Of course, there was the Supporters Shield-US Open Cup double, much-needed trophies that lifted a club desperately in need of self-validation. But FC Dallas, the league’s best team in the regular season, expected more. They expected an MLS Cup. And it didn’t happen.
Whether FCD can win MLS Cup this year is an unsolved riddle, and will be for some months. But the deeper point is that the way the club have gone about reaching a similar plateau as LA once did.
If the Galaxy went retail shopping at Whole Foods for its roster, FCD haggled over fresh produce at the local farmer’s market and got the same quality for half the price. And we have the front-office staff helmed by head coach Oscar Pareja and technical director Fernando Clavijo (pictured below) to thank.
Culture, connections and cultivation
The lifeblood of FCD’s success is not, as is often portrayed, the enormously prolific academy. FCD’s academy has indeed produced a few dependable pros, but only two, Kellyn Acosta and Jesse Gonzalez, have started more than one league game thus far this year. The academy itself is obvious a hugely important facet of the club’s sustainability, but that also means the other nine guys most likely to be on the field, eight at least, weren’t Homegrowns. So where the heck did the best team in MLS right now come from?
- Maxi Urruti was snared from Portland after being dumped into the 2015 Re-Entry Draft, when just four players were selected in 44 picks. The other 40 were passes.
- Tesho Akindele was a surprise sixth overall SuperDraft pick out of little-known NCAA Division II program Colorado School of Mines. He later earned MLS Rookie of the Year.
- Roland Lamah was plucked from the wilds of the Bucharest first division after his career in Spain and then England had seemingly stalled.
- Michael Barrios was little-known in MLS front office circles and was poached with the help of Pareja and Clavijo’s connections in Colombia.
- Victor Ulloa and Acosta, the two holding midfielders, are both Homegrowns, as is starting goalkeeper Gonzalez. Together, they’ve been in the FCD system a combined 22 years.
- Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman are both first-round picks from a hugely capricious 2013 draft and may well be the best center back duo in all of MLS.
Dallas have made do without Diaz all year as the Argentine magician rehabs a brutal Achilles injury from last year, a fact that might put the team’s success in 2017 into even more stark perspective. Take the most critical attacking player off any team in the league and watch them go 5-0-3 to start a season? Nonsensical fantasy. Or so it seemed, anyway.
Built for the long haul
Nobody in MLS has ever done all this with such a holistic system in place. The front office’s tendrils reaching into South America are so strong, its commitment to developing its own players so ironclad, and its belief that breaking the bank isn’t necessary so resolute, that it can afford to lose a star like Fabian Castillo and, somehow, improve.
Castillo was every bit as important to FCD as Beckham was to the Galaxy, but the latter was built on a foundation of stars like Landon Donovan and the coaching wizardry of Arena. A significant portion of the rest was scrambling and improvisation.
For years after the DP rule was established, the Galaxy’s model was viewed as the most reliable way forward; sign two or three huge stars on max-cap-hit contracts, fill in as best you can around them and hope the lack of depth doesn’t nip you in October and November. It can work, but it requires an extremely narrow set of circumstances, like transcendent coaching and injury avoidance.
FCD’s system is instead many different points of pressure at a smaller magnitude, like the numbing drop on the forehead in lieu of one giant swing. It’s incontrovertible proof that living, breathing depth can exist in MLS.
The season is still early, of course, and FCD have a long, winding, sweltering road ahead before they can count themselves equals with other MLS Cup winners from years past. But make no mistake, whether this year, the next or the next after that, FCD will keep coming so long as the current front office is in place.
Like a relentless hunter dogging its prey to the end, Dallas are here to stay. And for fans of bottom-up team building, that’s exceptionally good news.