FC Dallas don’t need to be reminded that a good run of results in March, April and May can mean next to nothing over the course of a full MLS season.
After all, this time last year, FCD were the toast of the league.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, they were on the couch.
The top team in MLS across the 2015 and 2016 regular seasons, Dallas picked up right where they left off in the first half of last year. They opened the season with a nine-game unbeaten streak and carried their hot form well into the summer, smashing Toronto FC at home on July 1 and holding the lead in the West as late as July 22, when a win at Montreal took them to 9-3-7 on the year.
They were on pace to record their third-straight 60-point campaign and a favorite to clinch a first-round bye out West. Missing the playoffs? Unthinkable.
Until the bottom fell out, that is. Dallas followed up their win at Montreal with a 10-game winless skid. They recorded just 12 points in their final 15 matches. The goals dried up, the defense became a sieve and the locker room looked like it had quit on head coach Oscar Pareja. A win against LA in the final game of the regular season wasn’t enough to get them into the postseason – Dallas ended the year in seventh in the West, tied on points but behind in the tiebreaker to sixth-place San Jose.
The club entered the offseason in a cloud. Which FC Dallas would emerge in 2018? The one that played so well in 2015, 2016 and for the first half of 2017? Or the group that collapsed so dramatically over the final few months of last season?
So far, they’ve looked more like the FCD of old. Dallas won their last four matches heading into the World Cup break and, with an average of 2.07, boast the top points per game mark in MLS.
“The way the team and Oscar are performing has been amazing,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told MLSsoccer.com over the phone this week.
“I’m excited, we’re excited, but at the same time we know that the first part of the season never really matters that much,” he continued. “We have to make sure that we are prepared and that we can count on the second part of the season, the playoffs. But we put ourselves in a good situation.”
Clavijo is tempering his optimism, but he is pleased with how Dallas are stacking up their points. Pareja has shown increased tactical flexibility and an increased willingness to play young players this year, giving FCD – who lived and died in a 4-2-3-1 in previous years and relied extensively on the same few players – a couple of extra clubs in the bag as they head into the second half.
Those options are important. So are the lessons Clavijo learned during last summer’s transfer window, perhaps the most important inflection point in FCD’s season and a major factor of their collapse.
According to Clavijo, Dallas were caught a bit off guard by Argentine club San Lorenzo’s combined $5 million bid for forward Maxi Urruti and winger Michael Barrios last August. The club eventually declined the offer, but the way the transfer saga was handled rubbed Urruti the wrong way. The striker went public with his disappointment during the season, and, though he signed a new deal with Dallas earlier this year, his feelings were emblematic of an FCD team that got very little out of their biggest names down the stretch in 2017.
“With San Lorenzo coming in the middle of the season and trying to take players away, it put a little bit of a situation, you can call it, inside the team,” Clavijo said. “Look, this is a good thing, we have good players and people coming to get some of our players for the Copa Libertadores, but hopefully you can manage it better.”
Clavijo is expecting to have opportunities to do just that in a couple of months. US national team midfielder Kellyn Acosta and Homegrown goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez have both drawn interest from abroad in past years. Clavijo even went as far to say last summer that he expected Acosta, who Dallas have two option years on following this year, to “probably” move to Europe within the next 12 months, a timeline that would see him leave Dallas midseason. That talk has cooled a bit with Acosta missing the first couple of months of 2018 due to injury, but Clavijo said that FCD – who don’t have any offers currently on the table for Acosta – are expecting some foreign interest in the 22-year-old later in the window.
If an offer does come, Clavijo says FCD will be more prepared for it than they were last year.
“We did [learn from last summer],” he said. “I think we were open with players, but we need to be more open than we ever did before. Without a doubt, last year with San Lorenzo, it surprised us. They never really communicated without us directly as much as it was in the papers, and then boom, it was out there. This is not the way to work. But it’s not only talking to the players, but at the same time it’s having replacements ready. Even if we don’t need one right now, you need a replacement that you can play and be prepared [if there is a sale].”
Clavijo wasn’t quite as revealing about FCD’s plans for incoming transfers, but he indicated that the club would look to bring in another center back for cover behind Matt Hedges, Reto Ziegler and Maynor Figueroa when MLS’ secondary transfer window opens on July 10.
Outside of adding some defensive depth, Clavijo indicated he’s mostly content with FCD’s current roster. He knows a good start doesn’t make a good season, but he feels his team is fresher, more versatile and more balanced than they were last year. There’s still work to do, but he likes where Dallas are heading.
“I think right now, with Oscar changing and using different lineups and different systems has given us different looks,” he said. “We can play with one up top, we can play two, we can play a 4-4-2, we can play a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, so I think Oscar has definitely evolved in regards to lineups and the use of players, so I am very comfortable that Oscar is making changes today, giving an opportunity for younger players to play, and at the same time we keep winning games. I’m excited and I’m very happy.”