How revered FC Dallas slipped into its state of vulnerability

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The defending Supporters' Shield winners were atop the West a few weeks ago. Now, the Hoops look like an average playoff hopeful.

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Taken on its own, FC Dallas’ 2-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night wouldn’t usually be a cause for alarm. Though they were outplayed, the Hoops mostly held their ground at Children’s Mercy Park, making life difficult for SKC and staying alive until the game’s dying moments, when Gerso Fernandes scored a late insurance goal to make it 2-0.

There’s no shame in that result. Sporting is unbeaten (8-0-5) at home in MLS play this year and has allowed just eight goals in those 13 matches. Under normal circumstances, FCD could flush Saturday’s loss and move onto Wednesday’s home match against Texas rivals Houston Dynamo.

Unfortunately for the defending Supporters’ Shield winners, these aren’t exactly normal circumstances.

Saturday’s loss dropped Dallas to 0-3-1 in its last four league matches. The Hoops have been shut out in three of those contests, and have been outscored 9-1 during their slump. They’re now within touching distance of the playoff line, with seventh-place San Jose just two points behind fifth-place FCD, though Dallas do have two games in hand on the chasing Quakes.

It’s a far cry from what looked like another year of taking the Western Conference by storm. Prior to this dip in form, Dallas was unbeaten in five straight and atop the Western Conference. The skid is FCD’s worst four-game stretch in over two years, matching a 0-3-1 slump – in which Dallas was also outscored 9-1 – the team suffered through in May and June 2015.

The winless run is raising eyebrows, but – for now, anyway – FCD isn’t overly concerned.

“I thought it was a very tactical game for both [teams]. The game ended up just being decided in a couple moments where we lost concentration and that cost us all the effort that we made,” head coach Oscar Pareja told after Saturday’s match. “It’s tough because at this point you get frustrated because you’re not getting the results, but the effort of the players was there and I thought we had a decent game against a good team. …We just have to continue going on with the project and the ideas and I know we’re going to bounce back.”

I’m not quite as sanguine about their prospects. I’m confident Dallas will make the playoffs – despite its slump, FCD is still third in points per game in the West – but the team’s struggling attack is becoming a serious concern.

Dallas has just 33 goals this season, second fewest of any of the 12 teams currently above the playoff line. When the team has found the back of the net, it’s been in bunches, with 16 goals – just under half its total output – coming in only four games. The Hoops have scored just 17 times in their other 19 matches, and have been blanked seven times, tied for fifth-worst in MLS.

Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Maxi Urruti has been the only consistent finisher on the squad, and when the Argentine goes cold, Dallas struggles to find answers. He’s currently in the midst of a five-game goalless streak, and FCD has scored just three total goals during that span. Designated Player Cristian Colman isn’t lightening the load, not even coming close to living up his hefty salary with just two goals in 18 regular-season appearances since joining the team this winter.

There have been matches in which Dallas has gotten a bit unlucky not to hit the back of the net more – its recent 0-0 home draw against lowly Colorado comes to mind – but the team’s attacking problems run deeper than just poor finishing. Mauro Diaz hasn’t looked like himself since returning from a torn Achilles in May after just seven months of rehab, leaving Dallas with a gaping void in the attacking midfield. As long as he’s not up to his usual tricks at the No. 10 spot – and it might be unfair to expect him to get back to 100 percent any time in 2017 – Dallas is overly reliant on its wingers to generate attacking opportunities. That group has been inconsistent, and the pretty buildup play we’ve grown accustomed to from FCD has been largely absent this season.

That’s not to say Dallas can’t turn things around. There is still plenty of talent, including newly-added Venezuelan winger Luis “Cariaco” Gonzalez for reinforcement. He should help, but another wide player isn’t anywhere near as big of a need as more creative, coherent play in the middle, whether it comes from Diaz or someone else.

Even if Dallas’ attack doesn’t markedly improve, its defense is relatively sound. It’s not too difficult to imagine Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, Carlos Gruezo & Co. stacking together some shutouts and giving Dallas a chance come playoff time.

But sitting back and trying to grind out results isn’t something Pareja will want to rely on in November. He learned that the hard way last fall, when, in a move prompted by Diaz’s injury, he used a surprise 5-3-2 formation in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals against Seattle. The Sounders blitzed that setup in a 3-0 victory, effectively ending FCD’s playoff run before it even began.

Now, Pareja might not have much of a choice but to play more defensive. Dallas’ finishing is inconsistent and his team lacks a true difference-maker in the final third as Diaz continues to work his way back to full form. That’s the difficult reality in Dallas, who looks more vulnerable now than it has at any point in the last three seasons.

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