It's the halfway point of the season, ok so it's not really halfway as FCD has played 17 games in a 32 game season, but the All-Star game was last week and FCD's friendly against Inter is this week, so it makes as good a halfway point as anything.
FC Dallas has a 6-2-9 record and 27 points, good for 3rd in the West and 5th overall. Having bumped up the "playoff target" of points we think a team will need to make it to 42, FCD appears to be well on their way to getting a playoff spot as their current pace gets them 50.
On the surface things are going well, so let's take a little deeper look at five things that are going right for FCD.
1. FCD is very hard to beat. With only two losses FCD has the best loss mark in MLS. LA Galaxy is close with only three losses, but stumbled in the last few weeks. The last two defending champs Real Salt Lake and Columbus both have four losses. Dallas has become a resilient team that doesn't give up a lot of goals. With Kevin Hartman in net and a cohesive back four, things have gotten really tight at the back. Hartman has a stunning 0.69 goals against in MLS play (best in MLS). FCD hasn't given up more than one goal in a game in MLS play since Hartman has been in net, that's going all the way back to April against Seattle in the 4th game of the season.
The funny part is that I have felt the last few years that Dario Sala was a better keeper than Hartman. Either there is something about this back four of Heath Pearce, George John, Ugo Ihemelu, and Jair Benitez and the way they interact with Hartman, or perhaps Hartman is just the beneficiary of the back four finally jelling and locking it down. It's hard to say which it is without being more intimately involved with the team and locker room. Whatever the reason FCD isn't give up goals and that's crucial.
2. David Ferreira is driving the bus. The Schellas Hyndman system, whether it this current 4-1-4-1 or his preferred diamond 4-4-2, is set up with highly rigid roles throughout much of the team giving the real freedom and key responsibility to the #10. Everything is designed to flow through and around this player. It's why Hyndman put such an emphasis on finding that kind of player when he first came here.
David Ferreira is that player. At the start of the year it was clear Ferreira had figured the league out and now he's really dominating play. He's scoring key goals, getting great assists, and even when not on the score sheet is dictating play, pace, rhythm, and generally driving the team. On the field this is Ferreira's team and El Torito is firmly in control. Even in the peak of Oscar Pareja's dominance of this side he didn't have this much on field influence. I doubt anyone ever has at this club. Ferreira's four goals ties for team lead as does his five assists.
The down side is, of course, that if Ferreira gets hurt this team is hosed.
3. The emergence of Brek Shea. I predicted in the spring that Shea would have a break out season, but I didn't expect it to be this good. Four goals ties for the lead on the team and his two assists is second (behind Pearce and Ferreira at five). It was a real worry at the start of the year when Hyndman jettisoned Dave van den Bergh. Where would the possession, assists, and influence come from? Shea is answering that question. I don't think he'll match van den Bergh's 11 assists in 2009, but Shea's already beat the Dutchman's three goals.
Better yet Shea is exhibiting that fearlessness and brashness that a young player needs. He's willing to take anyone on and get his body in tough spots. Opposition players are starting to be very wary of him. Is Shea by any means a complete player? No, and that's the best part. There is still a ton of room for improvement in this kid. He needs to be better in the air, tighten up the first touch some, and become much more savvy and cultured in possession (i.e. cut down on turnovers). The upside is still massive and the sky's the limit.
4. FCD is playing well on the road. The old convention is "win at home and tie on the road" and that, for the most part, is what Dallas is doing. 2-1-6 on the road with a +1 goal differential is quite impressive. Playing well on the road has always been, in my opinion, one of the hallmarks of a good team. Travel is tough, road environments are tough, it's not easy to perform well on the road all the time. FCD in the last month has gone into some tough places, Seattle, Toronto, and Colorado, and come out with point.
So why is FCD good on the road? For a lot of the same reasons they are good at home. Solid defense, they keep it tight and are are hard to score on; possession of mind and play, even if it's not as good as they would like; sme gritty big moment players that can rise to the occasion; combine that with some solid team belief and a good locker room and FCD is a team no one wants to play right now.
5. The Ihemlu, John, Hernendez triangle has really progressed. This is part of point number one in a way, but more specifically it's the basis of how the team is constructed. I've always felt strong MLS teams needed good American players at the core. Ugo Ihemelu, George John, and Daniel Hernandez form a tight triangle at the core of the defense that is very, very difficult to play through. Most opposition resort to playing down the wings or even long ball. Both center backs are tall, and Ugo has some serious recovery pace.
But beyond the simple tight defense, what's even more important for building a winning MLS team is that all three are Americans. Why do we care? I've always felt it was important to build the core base of a MLS side with domestic players. Not out of any desire to see Americans do well, but rather because the rules limit foreign players. The really talented, game changing Americans are very expensive; see Donovan, Landon. So if a club can build their core strength up the middle in defense with Americans, then a coach can spend his money on the higher skill per dollar value players that can come out of South America (or anyone not Europe really).
Point being, you build a solid team with Americans, then get your David Ferreira and Milton Rodriguez types to take it over the top.
Up next: five things trouble spots.