Oscar Pareja leads youthful FC Dallas to breakthrough silverware
Ever since Oscar Pareja took over as manager of FC Dallas in 2014, there has been plenty to admire about FCD. Its academy cranks out MLS-ready players at an impressive rate. It plays attractive, vibrant soccer. And it does so without breaking the bank on high-priced foreign talent.
Such an approach creates a thirst, however, one that can only be quenched by winning trophies, and the first one is oftentimes the hardest. Until such a breakthrough, there is doubt and pressure in abundance. But on a hot and humid night at Toyota Stadium, Dallas finally reached its oasis and drank long from the championship waters -- and some champagne, too -- thanks to a 4-2 victory against the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup final on Tuesday.
A trophy cabinet that has been all too bare will be a little fuller, and the 1997 U.S. Open Cup title -- Dallas' lone title up to this point -- will have company.
Now this FC Dallas team will be looked at a bit differently. Outwardly, not much has changed. Mauro Diaz, with a goal and three assists on the night, is still spraying pinpoint passes from every angle. Max Urruti, with two goals in the final, is showing signs that he is the goal-scoring piece to the puzzle that was missing a year ago. Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo continue to ably marshal the midfield. Michael Barrios has been a terror out wide, and Matt Hedges remains an underrated defender. But the pressure has been eased, resumes have been burnished and methods validated.
That is especially true for Pareja. Looked at in total, Dallas' progress in the past three years has been remarkably linear. The team's regular-season points total has gone from 44 in the year prior to Pareja's arrival to 54 in 2014, to 60 in 2015, and is on pace for another 60-point campaign in 2016. Along the way, Dallas has progressively gone deeper in the playoffs, falling in the Western Conference finals last year.
But until a manager wins a trophy, there will always be questions as to the wisdom of his approach. Is the team too young? In a league as rough and tumble as Major League Soccer, could attractive soccer also be winning soccer? Those questions have now been answered.
Granted, the U.S. Open Cup's place in the American soccer landscape makes it the poor relation among the sport's major trophies. The romance of lower-tier sides going up against the big boys is still waiting to capture the public's imagination, and even that of some MLS managers, who feel they are duty bound to give their reserves a run-out in the tournament's early rounds. But a trophy is a trophy, and the sight of owner Dan Hunt embracing Pareja, and the Dom Perignon being sprayed all over the Dallas locker room revealed that the USOC still carries with it some cachet.
One question that remains is: Will Tuesday's triumph be a catalyst to greater things, even a history-making treble? It's certainly possible, but one has to only think back to the stylish Real Salt Lake teams under Jason Kreis to be reminded that not every team fulfills the expectations that are set for it, even after an initial breakthrough. RSL claimed an MLS Cup crown in 2009, and then proceeded to lose an agonizing string of finals in the next four years.
The path forward for FCD will be difficult. Practically speaking, Dallas' regular-season run-in of New York City FC, Real Salt Lake, the LA Galaxy (twice) and the Seattle Sounders looks more daunting than that of the other Supporters' Shield contenders, most notably Toronto FC. And history has shown just what a crapshoot the MLS Cup playoffs can be. The sight of New England losing Gershon Koffie and Je-Vaughn Watson to injury in Tuesday's final is a reminder of how quickly a run to a title can go sideways.
To Pareja's credit, he has kept his side focused on the present, even while acknowledging the elephant in the room that is talk of a domestic treble. But winning often begets winning, and in a young side already full of ability, the belief that it can be done is usually the last piece to the puzzle.
With that component now in place, the next two months could see Dallas' trophy case acquire even more hardware, and gain even more admiration.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.