FRISCO, Texas – As far as party-crashing goes, it’s hard to top what Sporting Kansas City pulled on Sunday.
With a big home crowd and warm, sunny conditions at Toyota Stadium at the tail end of a festive National Soccer Hall of Fame induction weekend, the stage was set perfectly for FC Dallas to consolidate their hold on first place in the MLS Western Conference and build toward the playoffs with a decisive defeat of SKC.
The home side duly seized the advantage with a dominating performance over nearly the entire first half, markedly superior in just about every statistical category. Even when KC earned a penalty kick against the run of play, goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez delivered a clutch save on Ilie Sanchez’s spot kick.
And then it all began to crash down around FCD – leaving them with troubling questions to answer not just on the night, but for the remainder of their up-to-now impressive season.
Exploiting Dallas’ mental slackness with mere minutes left in the half, Daniel Salloi struck to put Sporting ahead 1-0. Then Reto Ziegler failed to convert an FCD spot kick early in the second half. And when Roger Espinoza doubled the lead on a set-piece rebound, the hosts were broken, driven to distraction as Kansas City took first place in their grip with a 3-0 road win.
“We had a big opportunity today to qualify first. We couldn’t do it. And we accept it,” said FCD coach Oscar Pareja postgame, noting that his team had “more desire than ideas” as they rode a “roller coaster” in the second half.
“But now I’m going to say again: I don’t want us all just to live under those circumstances. We’ve got to move on, because we have a game in front of us and we earned the right to win that game and qualify in one of the first two spots. Let’s wait. We will see.”
Dallas are three points away from reaching 60 points for the third time in the past four years, no small feat considering that no other team in MLS has ever reached that level more than twice. Yet the unique dynamics of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs – where momentum is king – are such that they find themselves on the defensive despite a year’s worth of consistency and resilience.
“It affects us for sure. It hurts,” said midfielder Victor Ulloa, who noted that this hard-fought game’s ill-tempered finish was instigated at least in part by some gloating from SKC. “But right now is the most important time – we can’t dwell on this game. We’ve had a hell of a season and mentally we have to keep our group strong.”
FCD’s biggest questions revolve around their front line. They’ve been shut out four times in their last six games and first-choice No. 9 Dominique Badji has scored just twice in nine appearances (eight starts) since arriving from the Rapids in July. He failed to find the target in a one-on-one with SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia in the first half on Sunday, a miss that proved costly.
“The finishing wasn’t good in the last game, also,” said Pareja, alluding to last week’s 1-0 loss at D.C. United. “I thought we saw a team who created many chances and we were maybe a team who lacked resolution in front of the goal. And today it happened again.
“How are we going to fix it? We are going to keep working, believing in what we have, because this team has gotten us to this point, and I’m proud of that. I believe in this group immensely. I believe in the forwards that I have. I believe in these guys, because they’re doing a terrific job and I’m going to back them up every single minute. Because they have brought us a lot of joy.”
It’s not clear that Pareja’s hybrid setup of Maxi Urruti in a proto-playmaking role behind Badji is Dallas’ best attacking look. Young playmaker and MLSsoccer.com 22 Under 22 honoree Pablo Aranguiz is a more natural No. 10 than Urruti, and came off the bench on Sunday when FCD shifted to a 3-5-2 as they chased the game.
But Pareja appears to be taking a very cautious approach with the Chilean in his first season in MLS, and sounded loathe to make significant changes at this late juncture in the campaign.
“Pablo has been adapting well to the league, he has that instinct of creativity and hopefully Pablo can help us from now on,” said the coach. “And we’ll try to use him in the best way possible. But once again, the team has been playing well and the team has been achieving a lot of stuff. There is not desperation now. We’ve got to be calm.”
In addition to those tactical questions, Pareja and his staff now face the delicate task of lighting a fire under their squad without deepening the damage done by Sporting’s win. They’ll have to get it right if FCD are to avoid the postseason disappointments that befell them from 2014-16.
“We are frustrated, but I saw our team in the playoff mode,” said Pareja. “And it’s going to take much more just to win it. We all have that expectation, and we are going to live up to it. What I don’t want is just to look that we are unbalanced.
“Sometimes the result just eclipses all that you do, and I’m not going to be part of that tonight.”