Sunday, November 21, 2010

MLS Cup: What a Difference a Defense Makes for FC Dallas

AP Photo/Gus Ruelas

Last year, FC Dallas scored the most goals in Major League Soccer (50), yet they also gave up the most goals in the league (47). All that offensive firepower couldn’t save them as they finished a point shy of the playoffs.

The team realized its awful weakness, and credit to them, they addressed the problem.

In 2010, Dallas gave up 28 goals. Only two teams (Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake, fittingly the two teams that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference standings). What a difference having a defense has on a team, as Dallas shutout the offensively-potent Galaxy en route to reaching the MLS Cup.

The pieces to fixing the defense were actually put in place last season. All four players that regularly started on the backline were actually acquired last season. So what was so different in 2010?

Well, for starters, they all were actually available for the full season.

Left-fullback Jair Benitez wasn’t signed until July 22 and made his debut July 24. He played and started in 13 games the rest of the season. Center-back Ugo Ihemelu was traded for on August 31 and made his debut September 5.

The biggest acquisition was U.S. International Heath Pearce, who the team brought in on September 11. Pearce is known not only for his defensive abilities, but also because he does a very good job of pushing up in the attack and serving a good cross (he was second on the team in assists in 2010 with six).

Filling out the backline is center-back George John, a rookie in 2009. He stands tall at 6’3”, but missed a handful of games last season because of a hamstring injury.

With those players coming on at the end of the season, the team won five of its last seven games and only allowed nine goals, including earning two clean sheets.

This year, John was healthy and Benitez, Ihemelu, and Pearce were around for the entirety of the season. And while Pearce was disappointed to not be selected to the U.S. team for the World Cup, it meant he spent more time with Dallas.

Pearce and Benitez each played in 28 games, tied for third-most on the team, and John played in 25 games.

Contributions from rookie defender/midfielder Zach Loyd and defensive midfielder and captain Daniel Hernandez also bolstered the unit.

The final piece to the puzzle was bringing in Kevin Hartman, one of the best goalkeepers in the league’s history. The record-holder for most career saves, most career victories, and most career shutouts was not brought back by the Kansas City Wizards for 2010, and Dallas salivated at the chance to bring him in.

All Hartman did was lead the league in goals against average (0.62) and save percentage (.0789 %). He also only lost one game the entire season while in net, finishing with a record of 10-1-8.

It all added up to FC Dallas going from the worst defensive unit and missing out on the playoffs to one of the best defensive teams and a league finalist for the MLS Cup.

There is a reason why the cliché is, “Defense wins championships.” Count FC Dallas as a believer of that reasoning.

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