Two years after reaching the MLS Cup finals, the club formerly known as the Dallas Burn found themselves out of the playoffs altogether in 2012 as they failed to win at least 10 games for just the third time in club history — and the first time it had happened in a 34-game season.
Schellas Hyndman, who won the MLS Coach of the Year award during that 2010 run to the championship match, will coach in his 140th game in team history once the season begins. The number represents the fifth-longest active tenure with a club among current coaches. He has to settle on a number-one in net among two competent choices, but he also knows that his team was just four points out of a playoff spot last season in the weaker of the two conferences.
The biggest question in Dallas is who will step up on offense after Brek Shea’s transfer to Stoke City in the English Premier League over the winter. Hyndman and the Toros went fishing in the offseason, acquiring a pair of strikers from other MLS clubs to try to mitigate the loss, but will still have that question hovering overhead until one or both provide a clear answer. Will FC Dallas get burned in 2013, or can they challenge for the top five in the West?
After enjoying a training camp and scrimmages against U-20 teams down in Cancun to begin February, FC Dallas traveled to the Pacific Northwest to compete in the four-team preseason series at JELD-WEN Field in Portland. They would exit the preseason with a 1-1-1 record for their troubles.
Their first match was against Swedish side AIK Stockholm. The European side played a scrappy match, pressuring the Dallas defense throughout and earning two yellow cards in the process, but Chris Seitz and Raul Fernandez were game in goal for the Toros and the back line held firm and kept level heads amidst the onslaught. Neither side would score in the 0-0 draw.
On a Wednesday night Dallas earned their first victory of the tournament against the host Portland Timbers. The Timbers managed to clear a dangerous David Ferreira free kick a quarter hour into the match, but the visitors held on to possession and continued peppering Portland’s goal with shots until Blas Perez found the back of the net in the 16th minute. Dallas would dominate the rest of the first half, with the home side surging in the second half without finding an equalizer.
The final match of their Oregon sojourn saw Dallas drop a 2-1 decision to the San Jose Earthquakes. Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes sniper who has led the league in goals each of the past three seasons, was allowed to sneak behind the back line. Pouncing upon a pass from midfielder Jason Hernandez, Wondolowski struck a laser past Fernandez for the lead. Dallas would level the score off a strike by Brazilian midfielder Jackson that caromed off a San Jose defender and into the net. But the Earthquakes regained the lead within five minutes after the restart for the second half, former Portland attacker Mike Fucito earning the Californians victory.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
Tough questions require answers in net, where FC Dallas is moving on from the Kevin Hartman era. The 38-year-old, who played his 400th MLS match last season, saw the club where he had played the last three years of his career choose not to renew his contract in the offseason. Instead the battle has taken place all offseason between incumbent backup Chris Seitz and winter signing Raul Fernandez, a Peruvian national team goalkeeper, to see who take up Hartman’s torch. Homegrown player Richard Sanchez could also conceivably push for playing time in his third season with the big club.
George John proved last season how essential he is to the success or failure of Dallas’ back four. After an offseason spent in London with West Ham United, John returned for 2012 in rare form. The team, well under .500 on the season, nearly broke even in the standings when John was on the pitch. He will reassume his customary role alongside Nigerian center-back Ugo Ihemelu, who missed two dozen games last season due to concussion symptoms. The fullback spots are locked down by Jair Benitez and Zach Loyd, who each played over 2000 minutes in 2012 on either side of the defense. Former New York defender Stephen Keel was signed through the Re-Entry Draft in the offseason after being waived by the Red Bulls. He will compete with a pair of SuperDraft picks, 2012 selection Matt Hedges and 2013 pick Walker Zimmerman, as well as Homegrown talent Moises Hernandez and London Woodberry for minutes.
Playing tactically in what most often looks like a 4-1-3-2 setup, the Toros will plug their Colombian midfield maestro David Ferreira into the attacking midfielder role, playing box-to-box and controlling possession. French veteran Peter Luccin — who was signed in the offseason after the midfielder’s latest stop with Lausanne of the Swiss league — could serve as a reliable holding mid behind Ferreira in the center. Dallas waived Ricardo Villar in the offseason, so depth beyond Ferreira is suspect. Brazilian wing-back Jackson and attacking set-up man Andrew Jacobsen offer pace and tactical strength up the flanks. Bobby Warshaw, Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta offer Hyndman a trio of under-25 options off the bench in relief.
The two likely starters up front are Panamanian striker Blas Perez, who had nine goals in 2012 for the club in his first MLS season, and whoever wins a spot alongside him. Currently the front-runner for the second forward spot looks to be former Portland Timbers forward Kenny Cooper, though incumbent Fabian Castillo also has a strong case after rating second on the team in goals last season behind Perez. Eric Hassli, the 31-year-old Frenchman brought in along with Cooper in the offseason, will also merit a look though he is the most injury-prone of the three. Homegrown strikers Bradlee Baladez and Jonathan Top are young but offer promising potential for Dallas at the position.
Like the team they lost to in the 2010 MLS Cup finals, FC Dallas has had difficulty maintaining position atop that plateau of success. Hyndman remains one of the more astute coaches in the league, but he is also running out of time. The former Burn have churned their roster once again, and one step forward could be two steps back in 2013 if the coaching staff can’t find the right mix quickly.