Future looks bleak for Clarke as coach
How in the world did things unravel so spectacularly for FC Dallas?
One day FCD is atop the Western Conference, swimming in confidence, living large, ahead in the aggregate goals first-round series and staring at the sweet prospects of not having to leave home again.
The daydreamers indulged themselves: Three successful matches at friendly Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, and the MLS title would land in suburban Dallas for the first time.
But in one woeful evening in Frisco, the team spiraled into a huge mess, coming apart like a $7 soccer ball.
Just like that, a swell opportunity was squandered embarrassingly for the second consecutive season. Just like that, a bunch of frustrated players were calling for changes, talking about leaving or, even worse, throwing punches in an unfortunate postgame donnybrook (which was way too frequent around MLS this past weekend).
It all happened in and around Colorado's upset win over the West's top seed, and it all looked painfully familiar to local fans, who witnessed the same shocking drive-by scenario unfold last year in a first-round ambush by the very same Rapids.
This year, coach Fernando Clavijo and his resilient Rapids claimed the back leg of the aggregate-goals series 3-2 on Clint Mathis' weapons-grade strike in extra time. That evened the series, and underdog Colorado advanced from there into the Western Conference final on penalty kicks.
So Dallas failed to exploit a clear path to the MLS final and went crashing out in the first round to the understrength Rapids, and now owner Lamar Hunt's organization is suddenly awash in sticky issues.
A franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 1999, despite abundant talent in 2005 and 2006, is looking suspiciously like a Chicago Cubs starter kit -- you know, jinxed. Can't get it done, no matter how well things line up.
Where to start?
Colin Clarke, the league's third-longest tenured coach after Dave Sarachan and Steve Nicol, will probably lose his job over this. Exciting young attacker Ramon Nunez may not be wanted at the club after a stunt he pulled during the contest. Dynamic midfielder Ronnie O'Brien, often unhappy during his in-and-out 2006 campaign, sounds like a man who has played his last game for FC Dallas, indifferent to his MLS address for next year.
Respected midfielder Richard Mulrooney says changes must be made after two consecutive failures to escape the first-round as the higher seed and clear favorite.
And there certainly seem to be leadership issues on a team that, for the second consecutive year, waded meekly into a series decider and seemed unable to dredge up even a hint of killer instinct.
Further, there are defensive problems to fix along a back line that was never quite settled in 2006; four different players were selected for the two central positions at various times this year.
Plus, the team may have to answer for an ugly postgame incident, which may culminate in a suspension for goalkeeper Dario Sala. Yes, the Rapids share blame for taunting FC Dallas fans, celebrating in front of and gesturing toward the Toros' supporters group. And, yes, some Dallas fans will applaud Sala for throwing a haymaker at Rapids defender Hunter Freeman and protecting the fans' honor from a needless, unprofessional act. But Sala knows better, and he should answer in the form of a suspension to begin next season.
Yet that might be the least of Dallas' troubles. At least Sala can figure on being around after a solid 2006 campaign.
The same can't be said for Nunez, 20. The brash young attacker found a regular place in Clarke's lineup this year but lost it later to Kenny Cooper, who pays more attention to defensive chores.
As soon as Clarke inserted his third and final sub last weekend against the Rapids, Nunez stripped off his FC Dallas jacket and his jersey and went huffing and puffing away from the bench -- a childish move not likely to win over many teammates. Assistant coach Oscar Pareja went chasing after Nunez, who never made it back to the sideline.
At least he didn't have to watch the Rapids score off a set-piece play -- a yearlong problem for Dallas' defense -- and then see Mathis given way too much time to line up his classy volley from 25 yards. It was a very "2002" moment for Mathis.
Yes, FC Dallas played a man down for 91 minutes. But the night was devolving quickly into a shambles even before Chris Gbandi sullied his best season yet with his worst moment in an FC Dallas uniform. How ironic that his ridiculous, late, cleats-up, two-footed tackle happened about the same place on the field as Pablo Mastroeni's similarly silly red-card tackle in the World Cup -- with Mastroeni only a few yards away when Gbandi dove in rashly this past weekend.
So Gbandi was gone by the 29th minute. But even before that, a Rapids team without league assist leader Terry Cooke (injured) and without starting forward Thiago Martins (suspended) was taking the game to an inexplicably conservative Dallas bunch.
At least last year when FC Dallas fell to Colorado in similar circumstances, it was all about goalkeeper Joe Cannon's heroic effort. This year, Cannon didn't need to be anything special. The Rapids outshot FCD in the two-game series by an astounding 44-19.
And before anyone lays too much of the blame on Gbandi's ejection, remember this: Colorado played a man down last year for much of the second-leg match and the extra time in Frisco and still found a way to advance.
It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Clarke will retain his position. He was given a one-year contract late last year and a clear mandate by gung-ho, first-time GM Michael Hitchcock: win the U.S. Open Cup and win the MLS Cup. The team fell in the Open Cup quarterfinals.
As for last weekend's Frisco fiasco, fans can debate Clarke's tactics all they want: the choice to remove the tireless Cooper; electing not to deploy an attacker late, preferring three defensive midfielders for the extra time; electing to use a three-man back line for the first time in 2006 following Gbandi's ejection. But the details are unlikely to matter. The bottom line is that another first-round failure will almost surely prove fatal. So who will replace Clarke?
Once again, SMU coach Schellas Hyndman will top the list. Hyndman went to the NCAA Final Four last year, and his Mustangs have spent much of the current season as the nation's top-ranked school. Plus, Clark Hunt, Lamar's son, is a strong voice in the Hunt family trio that makes the important club decisions, alongside Hitchcock. And where did Clark Hunt play his college soccer? That's right, at SMU under Hyndman, for whom Clark Hunt still has tremendous respect. FC Dallas has tried twice to hire Hyndman, who has opted previously for the security (and higher pay, based on what he was offered) of college coaching over the short shelf life of most MLS coaches. But Hyndman, 57, knows that the opportunities to coach at a higher level won't tumble in forever.
Assistant coach Oscar Pareja, tremendously respected in the organization, might be part of a short list, too, but he has just one year as an assistant on his post-playing days résumé. Clarke's top assistant, Steve Morrow, ran many of the FC Dallas training sessions and could get some consideration, too.
Perhaps the worst part for the club, in the big picture, is a wonderful opportunity lost. Attendance in 2006 improved by 34 percent over the previous year to 14,982 a game. But that number represents "tickets sold," a somewhat misleading figure driven by the club's push to distribute complimentary or heavily discounted tickets. Since not all "comps" show up, the actual number of people in the stands is still beneath Hunt Sport Groups desires.
For the second consecutive season, FCD had a chance to build real momentum. Within reach was a real buzz-generating run, the kind that sells those all-important season tickets: the second leg of the conference semifinals; the conference finale at home; the MLS Cup right there in Frisco, all on three consecutive weekends.
Now, with new parks in Chicago, Denver, New York and Toronto, and with Home Depot Center deserving of its place in the championship game rotation, it's worth wondering when such a keen opportunity will come around for FC Dallas again.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.