The first half of the 2014 season was a movie that FC Dallas fans had seen before, and could rightly be filed under "Horror."
Much as the club did in 2013, FCD sprinted out of the blocks with a 5-1-1 start. What followed was an eight-game winless streak thanks to injuries and a shocking lack of discipline. Seventeen games into the season, Dallas had more red cards (8) than wins (6).
In 2013, Dallas never recovered, winning just four more times after starting the year 7-1-3. But this time around, FCD has managed to right itself. The team is unbeaten in nine games, including the 5-0 hammering of the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday.
That win immediately followed what had been the team's biggest disappointment so far this season: the midweek penalty shootout loss to the Philadelphia Union in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. As a result, the team's once-tenuous grip on one of the five playoff spots in the ultracompetitive Western Conference has been strengthened.
When set against the team's injury list, the fact that Dallas lies third in the West is borderline stunning. George John, thought to be the linchpin of the defense, hasn't played a minute this season, and won't play at all after undergoing knee surgery on July 31. Hendry Thomas is also out for the year after tearing the ACL in his left knee last month. Midfielder Mauro Diaz, who lit up the league to the tune of three goals and three assists in his first eight games, missed two months after undergoing right knee surgery in May. He has played sporadically since his return, and looks to be sidelined again.
"I don't know if people realize how much adversity this group has had during this year," said manager Oscar Pareja following the victory over San Jose. "I haven't seen that before in my life. This group of players just stands up and keeps rolling and pushing."
But ask Pareja and his players what the difference is between 2013 and 2014, and it's difficult to extract concrete answers.
"The key is the group. I'm blessed to coach them; I'm honored to coach them. It's a gift from up there for me," said Pareja, as he looked toward the heavens. "It's very easy to coach these guys, to be honest. Their heart is there all the time. They empty [themselves in] every training; they empty themselves in every game. They make it easy. My job is easy because of the group that I have."
"We just kept doing what we were doing, kept believing in our system," said defender Matt Hedges. "We got that one win to break us out of the streak and just kept going."
Dallas doesn't have a monopoly on hardworking players, however, nor is a strong sense of belief unique to this side. Rather, the more one examines Dallas' success, the more one sees Pareja's influence, and while D.C. United's Ben Olsen is likely to win the league's Coach of the Year award, Pareja should get some votes.
Despite being hired only in January, the Colombian has put together a side that has considerably more depth than was first thought. He grabbed forward Tesho Akindele with the sixth pick in the MLS SuperDraft, a move that plenty of observers, including a few within the Dallas organization, thought was a stretch. He later brought back midfielder Victor Ulloa, who was re-signed only for this year after Pareja was hired. Akindele has scored seven goals, including a hat trick Saturday against the Earthquakes. Ulloa's play as a holding midfielder has been so impressive that the team felt comfortable enough to unload Andrew Jacobson to New York City FC.
Ulloa and Pareja go back a ways. When Pareja was running FCD's academy, Ulloa was his captain for both the U-16 and U-18 teams. Ulloa was later signed as a homegrown player, although it took a while for him to become a regular. Ulloa is now plenty familiar with Pareja's approach.
"You just see how honest he is," said Ulloa via telephone. "Obviously, he has a lot of passion on the field, and he shows that in training as well as the games. He's an emotional guy and he's a coach who gets close to his players."
But perhaps Pareja's greatest trait has been his ability to adapt. Aesthetics have long been a key component of his approach. Last year, while managing Colorado, he memorably bemoaned San Jose's approach, saying he was "sad for soccer" after the Quakes had -- as was their habit back then -- used tactics that were hard on the eyes.
That isn't to say that Pareja is now playing long balls, but he seems to have acknowledged that a team with speedsters like Akindele, Andres Escobar and the revitalized Fabian Castillo are at their best in transition, and FCD has become more of a counterattacking team as a result.
Castillo has probably benefited more than anyone from Pareja's approach. His eight goals this season have already eclipsed his previous career high of six, and he's on course to keep his promise to Pareja of scoring 12 goals.
"I used to be a very predictable player," said Castillo with the aid of a translator. "Now I move a lot better and know how to change things up. I think I'm a much better player in that sense."
The coming weeks will reveal just how far Dallas has come. The nine-game unbeaten streak has come primarily against the league's have-nots. But in the next two months, Dallas will play Real Salt Lake, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the L.A. Galaxy twice each, while also squaring off once against Seattle.
"We're ready," vowed Pareja. "We just made a statement to everyone that we're here to fight for the league."
And provide the team's fans with happier ending.