For the second straight year, Óscar Pareja’s his team off to a strong start. And for the second straight year, it’s a team that was supposed to finish near the bottom of the West. Whatever magic the former FC Dallas midfielder had in the Rocky Mountains, he clearly brought it with him when he returned to Toyota Stadium, and he’s putting it to use even earlier in the season.
Last spring, after a worrisome stretch to start the season, the new Dallas head coach found a formula with the Colorado Rapids, one that helped propel the thought-to-be rebuilding team into the playoffs. Now, three weeks into the 2014 season, Pareja has his new team on top of the Western Conference. With its 3-1 win over visiting Chivas USA, Dallas leading Major League Soccer with seven points through three games, building an early, two-point lead on Real Salt Lake and Vancouver in the Western Conference.
Saturday’s final score looks more lopsided than the match played out, though it was certainly Chivas’s least effective match of the season. Still, the effort that produced four points in two games was still there for Wilmer Cabrera’s team. The realities of the road, however, caught up to them. Holding out with a 0-0 through 70 minutes, Chivas saw a combination of Dallas execution and bad luck send the team to its first loss.
The breakthrough came in the 71st minute when an incredulously high line on a restart 12 yards inside Dallas’s half doomed the Goats. A chip over the top of Mauro Díaz saw Hendry Thomas knock the ball down for Fabian Castillo, who gave Dallas a late lead.
Seven minutes later, Díaz’s 30-yard ball rolled behind Tommy Lochhead allowed Je-Vaughn Watson to double Dallas’s lead, a goal that prove vital when Erick Torres beat Matt Hedges to a near post ball in the 81st minute, making it 2-1 Five minutes later, a Michel restart blasted into a wall deflected past Dan Kennedy, giving Dallas its two-goal win.
The schedule’s been kind for Dallas, who have faced Montréal, a half-strength Kansas City, and Chivas USA without traveling out of the central time zone, but still without George John and Raul Fernández, there’s plenty to laud about the team’s hot start. Perhaps the four goals allowed reflects the absences of the team’s two best defensive players, but a league-leading seven goals scored has made up for those problems. The attack may be over reliant on Díaz creating behind Blas Pérez, but it’s a dependence that’s produced huge early results.
After Saturday’s game, the only real problem for Dallas is depth, specifically in defensive midfield. Early on at Toyota Park, Adam Moffat had to leave the game injured. Andrew Jacobson took his place but had to be stretchered off in the second half after rookie Thomas McNamara stepped on his upper ankle. In stoppage time, Hendry Thomas committed a Hendry Thomas, earning straight red when he drove boot-fist at Bofo Bautista. With a set-up that’s playing two midfielders in front of the defense, Pareja is running out of options in the middle.
It’s something that could be particularly problematic against next week’s opponent, with Michel and Victor Ulloa a potential pivot tandem against the possessive-conscious Timbers. With seven days until kickoff, however, Pareja will have plenty of time to come up with other solutions. Given where his team sits after three weeks, it may be time to adjust our expectations of what Pareja can do and can not do with FC Dallas.