Pareja's project at a crossroads as Dallas' season spirals out of control
It's perhaps the most inexplicable freefall in MLS. Not LA Galaxy -- whose own fall from grace was foreshadowed by the creaking, top-heavy roster in Bruce Arena's last year as head coach -- but FC Dallas.
Dallas entered the season as a team of freewheeling young talents with their best years in front of them; U.S. Open Cup champions, Supporters' Shield holders and among the favorites to repeat the latter and take the next step to MLS Cup. They enter the closing stretch of the season on the back of a winless streak that dates back to July 22, and which has seen them take four points from the last 30 available.
From Western Conference frontrunners to outside the playoff places, just six points above Minnesota United. A couple of weeks into the season, as FC Dallas was commencing what looked like another processional campaign to the postseason, Minnesota was being dissected as potentially the worst expansion team ever. On Saturday, a surging Minnesota beat Dallas 4-1, in what more-optimistic Dallas observers might have hoped would be the game to start their comeback.
The winless streak dates back to a then-surprise 4-0 home loss to Vancouver at the end of July. At the time it was written off as the kind of aberration Oscar Pareja's team have a habit of throwing into otherwise successful campaigns. Dallas, the orthodoxy went, doesn't often lose, but when it does it loses big. Even the 3-1 loss on the road to Philadelphia that followed was seen more in terms of the enigmatic unpredictability of the Union than the start of a trend for the Huntsmen.
But then the trend set in hard. Home draws against Colorado, Houston, the New York Red Bulls and Seattle were interspersed with road losses to Sporting Kansas City, Columbus, Atlanta and now Minnesota. Dallas has been outscored 14-3 in its last five road games and has been unable to put an opponent away at home since beating D.C. on July 4.
And let's not forget that a few days before that game, the team many observers are discussing as potentially the best ever team in MLS, Toronto FC, visited Dallas and left 3-1 losers. Toronto has had its own stumble to the line in confirming the Shield this weekend, but nobody would have predicted such radically divergent trajectories when these two teams met on July 1.
So what's gone wrong? There's a popular answer that suggests that offseason signing Cristian Colman has turned out to be a bust, but that's neither fair nor wholly accurate. Colman's link-up play, if not his form in front of goal, has been fair to middling, and hardly out of line with the form of the rest of the team during this run.
What Colman has been is rather too anonymous for a team struggling for consistency; historically, when the team's been in tight spots as a creative force, there was always the option of the blunt force of Blas Perez as an attacking weapon to get the ball to, while the team regrouped. Colman has not been anything like that kind of practical, or even totemic, figurehead.
And then there's Mauro Diaz, the little magician we should be talking about regularly in the same breath as Diego Valeri, Sebastian Giovinco and Ignacio Piatti, as the creative conductors of their teams. Diaz gets his due as the orchestrator of Dallas's most creative passages of play, but injury has kept him from being fully effective, and Dallas looks like a team of speed but little subtlety without him. Pareja's been slowly bringing Diaz back into the lineup, but he omitted him again for the weekend's loss.
And if it was possible to understand omitting a player still on his way back to fitness, for the team's third game in a week, it's less easy to comprehend Pareja's thinking in trying to achieve consistency while making unforced changes, as he also did this weekend. Four in total.
In fact, looking at Pareja's selections in general this year, it could be argued that he's at an inflection point in his reign at FC Dallas. If the Galaxy were the undisputed kings of the designated player era, Dallas has looked like the paradigm club for the academy era, with Pareja not only willing to give young players minutes, but making something of a manifesto of it. The fearless team that scared Seattle in the 2014 playoffs, and really announced the Pareja project to casual viewers, was all about youth being given a chance. Those players would go on to flourish in last year's Open Cup-Shield double season.
Compare that to this year, and the minimal minutes seen by any of the four teenagers Dallas signed during this offseason -- less than two games' worth of action between them. Jesus Ferreira's goal in a 20-minute cameo against Real Salt Lake early in the summer was about as good as it got for that contingent. The change in CONCACAF Champions League format and Open Cup elimination has limited opportunities, but so too has Pareja's belief that the return of consistency will only come from trusted lieutenants.
It hasn't yet. And with five games left, there's little sign it will. A run-in that feature Colorado twice, Orlando, Seattle and a dispirited LA Galaxy should not be formidable, but neither should a game against Minnesota. How Pareja treats these five games will be telling. They could be all the time he has left this season.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.