The muscle of FC Dallas
A year into his tenure as head coach of FC Dallas, Schellas Hyndman looked around and realized he had the makings of a pretty decent team. Colombian playmaker David Ferreira was finally coming to grips with the physicality of MLS. Central defenders George John and Ugo Ihemelu were beginning to form an effective partnership along the FCD back line, while outside backs Heath Pearce and Jair Benitez were giving Hyndman the kind of flank play he had long craved.
But something was missing. For all of the pretty soccer the team played, the midfield was a bit soft. Dax McCarty was a solid, two-way player, but asking him to be the midfield enforcer didn't play to his strengths. Pablo Ricchetti had an impressive résumé from his days playing in Argentina, but was a bit undersized as well. Besides, he wasn't buying in to Hyndman's way of doing things, causing friction in the locker room.
What Hyndman needed was to find one of "his guys," the type of player who will not only follow the manager's instructions on the field, but also be an advocate for the master plan when the coaches leave the locker room.
What he needed was Daniel Hernandez. Fortunately for the Dallas manager, his one-time captain from their days together at Southern Methodist University was out of contract after having played for Mexican side Jaguares de Chiapas. And at the age of 33, with his career winding down, Hernandez was desperate to return home to his Texas roots. So he signed a contract for considerably less money than he could have earned in Mexico.
"[Dallas] is where I'm comfortable," he said after his team's 3-0 win over Los Angeles on Sunday that gave FC Dallas its first trip to the MLS Cup (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, BMO Field in Toronto vs. Colorado Rapids). "A lot of people don't mind being away from home. I wanted to be home in front of my family, in front of my friends, playing for a coach like Schellas that you will give everything you have on the field for."
The transformation for the club has been nothing short of stunning. When Hernandez made his debut in September 2009, FC Dallas' record was a cover-your-eyes 6-11-6. Since then, FCD has gone 19-6-15.
That's not to say it's all down to Hernandez. Other players, like Brek Shea, have emerged in the interim. But the presence of the veteran helped Dallas cross that slippery threshold from also-ran to contender. The only argument is where Hernandez has had the biggest impact.
"We'd always had decent leadership; we'd always had very good veteran players who were very good soccer players, and especially in MLS had good pedigrees," said McCarty, who has been in Dallas for five seasons, making him the second-longest tenured player behind goalkeeper Dario Sala. "But we didn't have that leader, that strong-willed guy who when things get tough is going to come into the locker room and let guys know that it needs to be better. That's what Daniel is: He's a tremendous leader on and off the field."
Hernandez has made Hyndman's life easier.
As the Dallas manager puts it, "Hernandez is the policeman. I brought him in for having the comfort zone of somebody I know and I can trust."
That faith extends to the field, where Hernandez has been a vital cog in the way Dallas plays. In attack, he is often called upon to initiate the offense, dropping deep to receive the ball from the team's center backs, and finding attacking danger men like Ferreira, Shea and Marvin Chavez.
"I think as a player he's been a real steadying influence for Dallas," said New England coach Steve Nicol, who coached Hernandez in two separate spells with the Revs. "He did the same things for us. He reads the game well and he passes the ball well. I think he gives them stability."
Given Dallas' penchant for getting forward, Hernandez has also provided the kind of stay-at-home presence in midfield that allows players like McCarty to take more risks. This, in turn, relieves them of some heavy lifting on defense.
"They have a lot of guys interchanging, they're not orthodox," said Nicol. "When things break down, and they've got guys forward, Hernandez organizes the team really well."
"Daniel brings that physical presence that says, 'Yeah, we're a very good team that loves to pass the ball, possess it, but we can also play tough as well," said McCarty. "I think every team needs a guy like that. Daniel's not afraid to mix it up, and I think that was something our team had been missing the last couple of years."
No one knows that better than Hyndman, who said that when he first took the manager's job in 2008, he thought it would take six months to turn the team around. It's taken considerably longer than that, but with Hernandez on board, the ultimate MLS prize is within the team's grasp.
Hyndman said: "When you have players that believe in what you do, and they speak behind your back in a positive way, and they lead in the right direction, it makes every coach's job easier."
Now the team is united on all fronts.
"The character and heart we've played with all year, it's unbelievable," said Hernandez. "We're like a family. That's what makes everything so much more special this year."
Especially now that all the pieces to the championship puzzle are in place.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.