I’ve been an MLS neutral the past couple years, and it’s the way things had to be. There have been times when I’ve felt bummed to be missing out on true fandom, on having my heart race when my team has a lead and time seems to be ticking by too slowly, on hanging on every moment in a season, cataloguing moments in my brain.
But it was another neutral season. There are benefits as well, with no spikes in blood pressure, no obligation tying you to games when you want to just grab a bite to eat or read a book to your kid.
What’s also nice in being a neutral is getting to watch the good teams be good. And while I’m not rooting for them as a fan, I’ve certainly been hoping FC Dallas would win silverware. Following Sunday’s season finale draw against the LA Galaxy, they won their second trophy of the year, grabbing their first-ever Supporters’ Shield as the best regular season team.
Why have I been pulling for Dallas? The easy answer is that they were one of the least decorated teams in MLS. For being an MLS original, their trophy haul was woeful, with only the 1997 U.S. Open Cup prior to this year. That’s a long, long time to watch every other original MLS side win something, and was the longest trophy drought in the league. So taking the U.S. Open Cup this year seemed both overdue and a job well done.
On top of that, taking two trophies so far this season has been vindication for Oscar Pareja. Dallas came within goal difference of winning the Supporters’ Shield last year, and for all of his clearly impressive work with Dallas and before that the Colorado Rapids, the head coach was quietly starting to get a rep as a good regular season coach but maybe not someone who could help deliver silverware. Now that he’s got two pieces, that criticism falls away, mercifully.
And on top of that, Pareja has gone full tilt with his squad this season. They have either won or are still alive in every single competition in 2016 for which they were eligible. U.S. Open Cup is over, but they won that. Same for Supporters’ Shield. It went way under the radar, but they won their CONCACAF Champions League group last week and are now moving on to the quarterfinals in the spring. And at the weekend they’ll start their run in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
For all that we understand the need for coaches to prioritize some competitions, it’s been refreshing to not only see a club go for everything, but succeed (so far), too. And while Dallas have some holes in their roster — they have no “star” striker, instead relying on goals to come from the group overall — that roster make-up appears to work in favor of taking all competitions seriously. There is a group of regular starters, but there’s also been a group of reserves or bubble starters who come in when they’re asked to, and with all the soccer games happening they’re getting their moment. So it’s nice to see them going for everything, and doing well while they’re at it.
And finally, I’ve been impressed with Dallas’ ability to come back and get must-win results. Two games stand out in this way. The first was the U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the LA Galaxy in Carson. The game went to extra time scoreless, and LA won a penalty and went up 1-0 during the extra 30 minutes. But Dallas scored two very late set pieces, and ended up winning 2-1. The scorers were a defender, Matt Hedges, and a defensive midfielder, Victor Ulloa. They got the job done.
This was replicated, in a sense, last week in the Champions League. In the middle of a week where Dallas’ lead in the Supporters’ Shield was razor-thin, they had a game midweek in Guatemala against Suchitepequez, in which they needed a win or a draw to move on to the knockout stage. The Guatemalan side took a 2-0 lead in the first half, and in many situations, you could see (and even understand) the MLS side effectively giving up on the game and the CCL. It’s the hardest competition to win, after all, and in terms of priority it’s probably in last place anyway.
But FCD didn’t give up. They leveled the score before halftime and poured it on in the dying minutes, going from 2-0 down 22 minutes in to winning 5-2. The persistence shown to battle back and make sure they grabbed the win was impressive, and winning their CCL group was just reward for the effort put in.
The popular thing right now is to say that FC Dallas have had a very good season but they won’t win MLS Cup. There are good reasons for that, of course. Their best player, Mauro Diaz, tore his Achilles and won’t be able to work magic with his set pieces or passing from the run of play. That’s a blow, no doubt.
And the playoffs are a crapshoot. Small sample, meaning an unlucky call or bounce can turn everything on its head, and sometimes teams just have bad days. It’s sound logic, to be sure.
At the same time, I want Dallas to take MLS Cup, grab a triple trophy haul for 2016 and turn their attention to making waves in the CCL knockouts in the spring. They’ve put in the work, they have the ability to dig deep in the biggest moments, they’ve won in a tournament setting and over a long season alike, and they haven’t exactly been hogging the podium the last 20 years. I may be a neutral, but there would be something sweet to see the good times continue to roll this season for FC Dallas.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!